June 23 — 4:36 pm, 2020

Educating children with disabilities during COVID-19: 5 things to know

The rights of students with disabilities stemming from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) largely remain intact.

Margie Wakelin

School children in classroom. (via ShutterStock)

This column was written for the Notebook’s May print edition. With the continuation of online education this summer and possibly in the fall as well (potentially as part of staggered schedules), the impact on special education students and their families continues. In this commentary, the Education Law Center outlines the rights that caregivers have when advocating for their children.

Over the last few months, education has been turned upside down. Classes have been cancelled and schedules disrupted. Classmates have been minimized to images on a screen. Children with disabilities, who are arguably the most dependent on consistent routines and have the least ability to access remote learning, have been uniquely harmed by these changes.

At the Education Law Center (ELC), we have spoken frequently with families who are worried that the losses their children are experiencing will never be recovered. We are advocating to ensure that their stories and concerns inform strategic decisions of local, state, and federal leaders.

For example, a mother of three children with disabilities contacted ELC during the first week that schools were closed in Philadelphia. She explained that she worked two jobs and was not able to pick up work for her children before schools closed. She did not have any computer or internet in her home, so she struggled to learn about educational opportunities at all. She communicates only in Spanish, and she was not getting a response from her children’s teachers about what additional support was available for her children with disabilities.

After just five days, she was already observing regression in her children’s social and communication skills. She asked, “What can I do? What hope do I have to stop this slide from happening?”

As a parent of children with disabilities, there is a lot that she can do.

The way all students experience school has been drastically altered by the COVID-19 crisis and school closures, but the rights of students with disabilities stemming from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) largely remain intact.

A cornerstone of the IDEA is the right to a free, appropriate public education, which includes special education and related services so that a child receives meaningful benefit. Despite schools’ physical closure, schools are still obligated to provide this powerful entitlement of an appropriate education.

Parents can and must advocate to ensure that their children receive an appropriate education. That starts with understanding your rights.

1. Your child has a right to a temporary learning plan and Extended School Year (ESY) services.

Schools should contact you to create a plan for your child’s learning while schools are closed. This plan for remote learning should be based on your child’s IEP or 504 plan and should be modified as new needs come up related to remote learning delivery or changes in your child’s skills. This plan should also address ESY. If you don’t know what your child’s learning plan is for remote learning and ESY, contact your child’s regular or special education teacher to request it.

2. You have a right to an IEP meeting.

You have the right to request an IEP or 504 team meeting by phone or computer, to work on a learning plan for your child. This meeting governs how your child will receive services or what new services your child needs while schools are closed. If some services cannot be provided at home, the team can decide that your child will get additional services when school reopens to make up for lost learning. These services are called “compensatory education.” If you have not had an IEP meeting or other school meeting during the school closures, you should request an IEP meeting.

3. You have a right to written notice.

After the meeting, you should get a written Notice of Recommended Educational Placement (NOREP) or Prior Written Notice (PWN) that describes your child’s remote learning plan. It should explain that this learning plan only applies while schools are closed. When school reopens, your child’s services will follow the plan in place before schools closed in March. If you have not received written notice of your child’s learning plan for remote learning, you should contact your child’s regular or special education teacher to request it.

4. You have a right to disagree.

If you disagree with the temporary plan, you should tell the school about your concerns. You can request a new meeting, mediation, or a due process hearing. You can also send a complaint to the state. Your school should not ask you to waive or give up your right to a free, appropriate public education in order to receive services now.

5. Your child may have a right to compensatory education.

Once schools reopen, you should meet with the IEP or 504 team to decide whether your child is entitled to compensatory education services to make up for supports your child did not receive while schools were closed. Keep an ongoing log of the services your child receives to help prepare for that meeting.

Amid all these changes and uncertainties, families also tell us about bright spots in their children’s education. We hear about teachers using video breakout rooms for differentiated, small-group instruction that includes all learners, or social workers leading social skills bingo games with children with autism who are engaged and laughing. We are encouraged by these examples. While the current COVID-19 pandemic presents unique challenges, we know that families and schools can work together to transform learning.

Margie Wakelin is a staff attorney at the Education Law Center – PA. For more information, go to elc-pa.org,
@educationlawcenter on Facebook, or @edlawcenterpa on Twitter.

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