New Guidelines for Special Education Amid COVID-19
The US Department of Education is providing details about how states, schools, and parents can best address student special education needs following the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Students with special needs are provided Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), which requires tailoring to meet individual disability needs. The program's goal is to give children with special needs the same education opportunities as those without disabilities. The coronavirus is severely challenging schools to provide these necessary services.
The guidelines are one set of procedures for children ages 2 to 21 and another for younger children. Teachers and parents are tasked with working collaboratively to meet the students' needs in either age group. Communication between parents and public agency staff must create understanding and define the roles each provides to integrate their services to a child with special needs. If there is a dispute that is not possible to resolve, then the three dispute resolution mechanisms, as defined by IDEA, are implemented. These are mediation, state complaint, and due process complaint procedures.
The new guidelines define that discretionary timelines for resolving complaints are on a case-by-case basis during the COVID-19 pandemic for both age groups. The regulations are highly detailed and available online for both groups, ages 2 - 21 and infants and toddlers, as put forward by the US Department of Education's Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP). Timelines for due process complaints and hearings may also be adjusted in certain circumstances or conducted via conference calls or video conference calls.
Betsy DeVos, the US Secretary of Education, says the department has issued new information that clarifies no federal law shall be used to prevent schools from offering distance learning opportunities to students with special needs. The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) explains, "… every school district must take the necessary steps to address the health, safety, and well-being of all its students and staff, educators can use distance learning opportunities to serve all students."
Before issuing this new information, some school districts were using the Department of Education guidelines as a reason not to educate children with disabilities. Secretary DeVos states, "This is a time for creativity and an opportunity to pursue as much flexibility as possible so that the learning continues. It is a time for all of us to pull together to do what's right for our nation's students."
No school district should use education rules and guidelines to derail disabled student learning, whether during a pandemic or not. Encouragement to solve issues at a local level is encouraged as a one size fits all solution for students with special needs is impossible to achieve. Together, school systems and staff, along with parents, must meet the challenges this pandemic brings to continue the education process of all students, disabled or otherwise.
Educators that require additional resources to meet disabled students' distance learning needs during COVID-19 can tap both OCR and OSERS for technical assistance. Students may require voice recognition only for online learning, while other students may require specialized equipment to interact over the internet. A supplemental fact sheet for IDEA provides quick reference and internet links to answer any questions about providing services to children with disabilities during COVID-19.
Even if the level of learning online is not as robust as being in a school facility face to face with a special needs teacher, there is undeniable importance for students to have a schedule, a routine of learning to which they must adhere. Education is not only about information but also critical thinking skills and learning how to cope with life under adverse conditions. The coronavirus is challenging special needs students, educators, and parents alike to adapt to situational distance learning.
If you have questions or would like to discuss your own situation in a confidential setting, please don’t hesitate to reach out. And if you are outside of Florida, please contact an experienced Elder Law Attorney (preferably one that is Board Certified in Elder Law) to assist you.
Jason A. Penrod is only the 20th attorney to be Board Certified as an Elder Law Expert by the Florida Bar and the National Elder Law Foundation. He is the founder of Family Elder Law (www.familyelderlaw.com) which has offices in Lakeland, Lake Wales, and Sebring, Florida.