Jean Murrell Adams, Esq.
Many school districts have announced closures through the end of the 2019/2020 academic school year. Is your child still receiving the educational services and supports under her IEP? Has the school district sent you a standard Prior Written Notice form letter changing your child’s education or services? Have you been asked to waive any of your child’s rights in exchange for continued special education services and supports during school closure?How can parents know what to do?
School Districts and charter schools must provide special education and related services during Covid-19 school closures. The United States Department of Education has made clear that, if a school district or charter closes its schools to slow the spread of COVID-19, and continues to provide educational opportunities to the general student population, the school must ensure that students with disabilities also have equal access to the same opportunities, including the provision of FAPE. State and local educational agencies and schools must ensure that, to the greatest extent possible, each student with a disability can be provided the special education and related services identified in the student’s IEP (Individualized Education Program). Once schools reopen, the IEP Team must make an individualized determination as to whether compensatory services are needed.
Some school districts and charter schools are doing a good job in providing special education and related services at a distance under the circumstances—but many are not. Informal polling of our clients reveals that charter schools, with smaller class sizes and newer technology, seem to be doing a better job than large public schools in providing services and supports to children with disabilities during the Covid-19 crisis. But there are various reasons why students with special education needs may not be accessing their required services and supports. Many parents are struggling in the role of teachers to one or more children while simultaneously working from home or in front-line jobs. They are overwhelmed with having to meet financial and now educational responsibilities. This is on top of the stress associated with the pandemic itself. Some parents report that they simply do not have the computers, printers, scanners, software or internet connections needed to access distance learning. Nor do they have training in how to teach the highly specialized field of special education. On the flip side, remember that teachers are now also at home, maybe helping their own children, and also may be struggling to work with limited time, technology and resources to teach their students.
What should parents do to secure appropriate special education and related services for their children with disabilities as we navigate the Covid-19 pandemic? We’ve assembled some examples of “do’s and don’ts” from special education experts, including our own former clients.
- Do take care of yourself. As parents, we often put ourselves and our needs last on the list (and never get to them). It’s important to remember that these are extremely scary times that are fueling a great deal of anxiety. Take time for you. You still can do it all—but you don’t need to do it all at once.
- Don’t give up. Despair is your enemy. Faced with language barriers or the lack of time, resources and training, many parents have reportedly just given up on even trying to keep up with distance learning for their children. But this can result in even further regression during this period. Instead of giving up, seek help in unexpected places. For example, there is an army of underutilized high school, college and graduate students who are out of school and out of work. Tap into your networks and find help for your child among these eager and energetic young people. Access reputable resources such as the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA) and your State Department of Education. Many school district and private companies are now handing out hardware, software and free internet access for a limited time. There are also free WIFI hotspots popping up in many locations. Locate and access these free resources.
- Do remember that we are all in this together. Your child’s teachers and service providers are likely experiencing similar financial and emotional stressors. These unprecedented times require all of us to be a lot more flexible, patient and reasonable.
- Don’t settle for a one-size-fits-all educational program. Student’s with IEPs have individual needs which don’t just evaporate because they are learning from home. The law is clear that school districts and charter schools must continue to provide special education and services pursuant to their IEP to the greatest extent possible. Again, be patient but persistent in holding schools to their obligation to provide a free, appropriate, public education (FAPE) for your child.
- Do collect data. You are now in the position to collect a lot of information about your child’s academic, social/emotional and behavioral strengths and weaknesses. For example, if your child has frequent outbursts to avoid doing work, document them with short videos. If your child struggles with reading, again a video can tell the story. Save examples of work product so you have proof that he is not performing at expected levels. Your child may be regressing during this stay at home period. Obtain a copy of his academic work or other areas from the beginning of March so that you can compare it to how she is doing now and a month from now. This will help you document skill loss when you demand compensatory (make-up) services in the Fall. Caregivers, parents, or education rights holders can also document what services a child receives from the school district or charter school by using the sample logs made available by the Alliance of Children’s Rights to help prove what services a child may be entitled to.
- Do respond to PWN’s. Many school districts are blanketing parents of children with IEPs with Prior Written Notice (PWN) form letters. These letters inform parents of what special education and related services that the school district will and will not provide. If you do not respond to the PWN, a judge may later presume that you agreed to the unilateral changes to your child’s educational programming. Send a short email to your child’s case carrier explaining that you received the PWN and either you do not understand what it means or you consent to these services for implementation purposes only but do not agree that they provide appropriate distance learning services during physical school closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Don’t sign blanket waivers. Parents are reporting that some school districts are only providing special education services if they agree to give up some services or rights. Unless you fully and completely understand all that you are giving up for yourself and your child, and are in full agreement to do so, avoid signing blanket waivers. You may want to consult with an attorney or special education advocate in your area for advice.
- Don’t agree to an Exit IEP. Many school districts are taking advantage of the current crisis to exit students from their IEPs. This time of year, we are primarily seeing this in the form of Exit IEPs as a condition of graduation. While it’s fine to earn the diploma, it’s critical to get the education. If you have concerns that your child is not prepared to transition, avoid agreeing to an Exit IEP without consulting a local advocate or attorney.Remember that, if your child has reached the age of 18, he can sign his consent to the Exit IEP without your permission.
Finally, please do stay in touch. We’d love to hear your stories on how you have been managing with teaching and providing related services to your child with special needs at home. Contact us at: Together@adamsesq.com with your stories. Your experiences can guide us in pinpointing topics to address in future articles and webinars. You also may want to review our past Coronavirus-related blogs: “Forget About the Toilet Paper—Grab That IEP!!”and“Special Education Teaching is Really Hard!”