We’re all eager for school to reopen for in-class learning.  But parents, especially parents of children with special needs, need to do a lot more back-to-school prepping this year.  Here are five things every special education parent should consider before leaving a child at school during the COVID-19 pandemic.    

1. Safety. 

Make sure your child will be safe at school.California’s Department of Public Health recently published updated guidance for all schools and learning pods (cohorts).  Among other things, this guidance limits class size to no more than 16 people, (including teachers and aides) and strictly limits mingling of students and teachers between classes.  Combining flex-time and full-time students in one class is also banned.  One-to-one specialized services, such as occupational therapy, behavioral therapy or speech and language, can be provided in the classroom even if that exceeds the 16-person cap.  While it’s important to review all of these rules, the only way to ensure your child’s safety at school during COVID-19 is to see for yourself.  Request a written copy of all safety protocols and make sure they agree with your child’s disability-related needs.  Observe the proposed classroom before you agree to send your child there.  Is there adequate spacing in the classroom? Is it clean? Well-ventilated? Are the aides trained in safety protocols?  If your child is entitled to transportation services, inspect the bus and speak with the driver about all safety measures.  Get written permission to visit your child’s classroom for short periods to ensure all protocols are being followed and to monitor her safety.  If you are uncomfortable with the safety measures or believe they are not being followed, consider contacting your child’s IEP case manager and requesting a change of placement.  If that is ineffective, contact an experienced special education attorney.

2. Education. 

A good education begins with good teachers.  Make sure your child’s general and special education teachers are properly certified and credentialed before you entrust them with his education.  Even before COVID, California struggled to retain qualified special education teachers, especially in low-income areas.  A record number of teachers in classrooms had not completed teaching preparation programs or had only partial training. That shortage has worsened due to early teacher retirements and COVID-related health concerns.  Question your child’s teacher regarding her experience working with children with similar special needs.  Look him up on California’s teacher credentialing website. Make sure she has a copy of your child’s IEP and is following the agreed-upon program.  Ensure that your child’s classroom or one-on-one aide is well-trained and appropriately supervised and that there are a sufficient number of aides in the room.  Teachers must now go above and beyond to safely educate our children while keeping themselves and their family safe—and they need proper training in order to do so.

3. Inclusion.

For the most part, special education laws are still intact during the pandemic.  This means that, among other protections, your child remains entitled to an education in the least restrictive environment.  School districts and charter schools can’t “warehouse” children with special needs into the same classroom without regard to their individual needs.  Instead, they must be educated with nondisabled peers to the maximum extent appropriate to meet their identified needs. Be extra cautious regarding “one-size-fits-all” special day class placements.  Special classes, separate schooling, or other exclusion of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment is appropriate only if the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplemental aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.  As schools are reopening, ensure your child has access to inclusion with typical peers.  This can be tricky due to classroom, cohort and learning pod restrictions mentioned above, but it remains a fundamental right for children with special needs. 

4. Back-up-Plan.

As we have already experienced, even the best re-openings can be derailed.  A new law requires California schools to include a back-up-plan for the delivery of a FAPE in the event your child’s IEP is disrupted for more than 10 school days due to “emergency conditions” such as fire, flood, and epidemics.  The requirements for a FAPE back-up-plan are fairly extensive and must include an explanation as to how the school will provide: special education and related services; supplementary aids and services; transition services, and extended school year services.  Your child’s IEP should be amended to include the FAPE back-up plan before your child goes back to school.  Many school districts are simply sending a generic notice of emergency plans, but this is not in compliance with the new law.  Make sure the emergency plan is specific to your child and is part of her IEP.  This can be accomplished via an IEP addendum or virtual IEP meeting.

5. Explore Other Options.

Even when all parties are working together with the best intentions, it may not be possible for your child to obtain meaningful educational benefit in a public school classroom during the pandemic.  As you learned from our past blogs, The “FREE” in FAPE and Doubling Down on Special Education, special education law affords options such as learning pods, private schools and other programming at school district expense.  California Department of Education deemed some service providers as essential workers, including nurses and assistants, physical and occupational therapists and assistants, social workers, and speech pathologists.  According to recent special education legal rulings, services from these providers can take place in the home and, even during the pandemic.  Additionally, when a school district or charter school is unable to provide a FAPE, current federal and state guidance provides that once the regular school session resumes, districts would need to make individualized decisions regarding whether an affected student required compensatory services.  Parents may be able to use those compensatory services at home or to supplement distance learning.

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