Special Education in the Era of COVID-19

tags: Maryland Center for Developmental Disabilities

The country is facing extraordinary challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With traditional school buildings closed nationwide, schools are navigating how to provide access to quality education using virtual platforms. Ensuring that students with disabilities have equitable access to remote learning is of paramount importance during this time.

Early on in the pandemic, the United States Department of Education (USDE) issued interim guidance regarding the delivery of special education and related services during the COVID-19 pandemic. This guidance clarified that if a local educational agency (LEA) continues to provide educational opportunities to the student population at large during a school closure, the LEA must ensure that students with disabilities have equal access to the same opportunities, including the provision of a free appropriate public education (FAPE) as required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Accordingly, under guidance from the federal government, schools must ensure that, to the greatest extent possible, each student with a disability is provided with the special education and related services identified in the student’s individualized education program (IEP) developed under IDEA, or Section 504 plan developed under the Rehabilitation Act.

Nine days later, the USDE issued supplemental guidance to assist LEAs in implementing appropriate distance learning for students with disabilities. This guidance indicated that the IDEA allows for flexibility in determining how to meet the individual needs of students with disabilities. The USDE further clarified that the determination of how FAPE is to be provided may need to be different in this time of unprecedented national emergency. FAPE may be provided consistent with the need to protect the health and safety of students with disabilities and those individuals providing special education and related services to students. The USDE clarified that this level of flexibility is permissible and available under the IDEA.

Fortunately, this flexibility gives schools great leverage to be creative in determining ways to meet the distinct needs of each student. School districts can and should rise to the challenge of developing unique plans for each student with a disability to help students access their education during this unprecedented time. Many modifications and services can be effectively provided online. For example, if necessary, students with disabilities could be provided with extra time on assignments, closed captioning on video lectures, access to print materials, virtual psychological or speech language services, and much more.

The Maryland State Department of Education’s Division of Early Intervention and Special Education Services (DEISES) has also been very active in issuing guidance to assist with implementing IEPs during the pandemic. To date, the DEISES has produced more than 17 guidance documents on a variety of topics to help parents and education professionals navigate the COVID-19 school closures. These technical assistance bulletins cover a variety of topics, including the use of assistive technology in a virtual environment, navigating secondary transition during the pandemic, and providing continuity of learning for students who require intensive, individualized structure and support.

LEAs nationwide are working to develop interim plans to provide access to FAPE during school closures. Some LEAs are holding IEP meetings to discuss interim learning plans, some are proposing learning plans as amendments to IEPs that do not require IEP meetings, and some are considering their learning plans as documents separate from the IEP process. However, regardless of their LEA’s approach to developing interim learning plans, parents have the right to request IEP meetings to discuss their children’s needs. Parents who believe their child’s plan needs to be discussed in more detail are encouraged to contact their child’s IEP team to request a meeting.

In the field of special education, these are unprecedented and uncertain times for parents, students, teachers, related service providers and school systems. Working collaboratively with all parties and thinking creatively is encouraged to secure appropriate services for each individual student.