How Distance Learning is Affecting Special Education

8 weeks ago, I received a frantic phone call from representatives at a local school district. They informed me that the school district would be closing its doors and sending all staff and students home, effective immediately. The district team asked me to work with them to move dates on some cases that were currently pending, and we selected dates in late April and early May—dates when we felt confident life would have returned to normal. Following that call, updates trickled in that all other school districts would also be closing due to the need to social distance based on COVID-19 health and safety recommendations.

And then my phone went silent. For a week or two I didn’t hear from anyone, current clients, schools, or new families looking for help. Everyone seemed to pause collectively to mentally organize the shift that had just taken place. Just as likely, everyone was probably too busy figuring out their work situation, child care needs, cancelling major plans or trips, and buying up enough groceries to last for the two weeks that we thought this would last.

But after the initial shock wore off, my phone started ringing again. Parents were frustrated that their students with special education needs weren’t getting the support they required. How are parents supposed to know how to provide special education services to their kids? Or any level of academic instruction for that matter? Parents have real concerns that their kids’ needs aren’t being met, and as much as they deserve answers, many schools are only responding in silence or question marks.

We still don’t have answers to a lot of these questions, but 8 weeks after our schools closed their doors, we’re starting to see how they plan to open their windows online to work with students and provide services during this time.

Serving Students with Disabilities During School Closure

Are special education services still provided during Covid-19 school closures? The answer is: it depends. Some schools effectively closed for a period of time following the shelter-in-place order. They were not providing any services for any students. During that time, families were essentially placed on Summer Break, but without any of the fun vacations or camps. The Districts weren’t required to provide services, because they were deemed “closed”.

This has changed for the most part, and most districts are now offering Distance Learning programs. Educational services are being provided to students virtually, through Zoom meetings and online academic portals. Many schools decided to shift grades to a credit/no credit model, and some decided that they would permit student grades to increase based on work completion, but would not allow any decrease in scores.

For schools implementing distance learning models, students with special education needs are still entitled to receive a FAPE: a Free and Appropriate Public Education, with services in line with their IEPs. This means that specialized academic instruction should be offered to support students in their classes. Related services, including speech and occupational therapy, should also be provided remotely, to the fullest extent possible.

What Rights Do I have Right Now?

Luckily, most parent and student procedural safeguards remain in place, allowing parents to advocate for their children’s educational rights.

Parents also retain all other procedural safeguards and special education rights, even if some of the timelines may be tolled. Parents who are concerned their child might need special education supports through an IEP can still contact the District to request a referral for an initial evaluation. The District won’t be able to initiate the assessment process until schools reopen (or until new health and safety measures can be implemented to permit evaluations during distance learning), but the request will be on file so that the appropriate timeline will begin as soon as schools reopen.

This tolling period also applies to requests for education records, though I would still recommend you request copies if you need them. While the timeline to provide copies of education records has been tolled, many school teams maintain electronic copies of records, and have been able to provide them during the school closure.

Every school district seems to be handling IEP meetings differently. Initially, it appeared that all IEP meetings were cancelled during the closures. However, I have noticed that recently many school teams are reaching out to schedule IEP meetings and get the teams together to discuss student needs. While many families are happy to meet with school teams at this time, some feel the time would be better spent evaluating a student’s needs once schools reopen. It is important for parents to remember that they can request an extension of all relevant special education timelines. Only a parent can agree to extend a timeline—remember, the IEP team needs to meet at a time and place convenient for you!

Most importantly, the Office of Administrative Hearings remains open and is accepting new filings of due process complaints. While the process looks a little different, the hearing office is still facilitating mediations and presiding over due process hearings. This allows parents to raise concerns against the school district when they feel their students may not have received appropriate special education services. Parents can participate in the settlement process with the school district team in order to pursue appropriate remedies to resolve their issues.

What Should Parents Do Now?

My best advice at this time is pretty simple: you are the best parent for your kid! Emphasis on the word parent! A lot about this current period is really hard. Parents are trying to be everything all at once and all the time. Facilitating your kids’ distance learning is tough and can make an already stressful situation feel overwhelming. Focus on your role as their parent and advocate. If you feel your kid is struggling with the distance learning model, reach out to the school team for support. If you want answers, email the school team with your questions. They might not have any information yet, either, but you have the right to ask.

Now is also a great time to start organizing any concerns you had with your student’s education prior to the COVID-19 school closures. If you felt your child was not making appropriate progress, not receiving appropriate services, or required a change in his/her educational program, now is a perfect time to consider filing a due process complaint to address those concerns. Reach out to a special education attorney to discuss whether you may have a case against the school district. As a result, you can secure compensatory services, a new educational placement, or a stronger IEP, all of which will be in place to help boost your child to success once schools reopen.

If you have any questions regarding your child’s education rights or the option of filing a due process complaint, don’t hesitate to reach out to my office. We are offering complimentary 1-hour consultation appointments by Zoom or conference call, and I am always happy to speak with families about any questions or concerns they might have!

About the Author

Jazmine Gelfand is a special education attorney who offers education and disability legal representation to the greater San Diego community. She is dedicated to zealously representing children with disabilities and their families, through a collaborative and results-oriented approach.

For personalized advice on special education law, especially now during coronavirus quarantine and distance learning, you can connect with Jazmine here!

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