Distance Learning or Optional Activities: Understand the Impact on Special Education & IEP Services

empty desks in a classroom with a chalkboard in the background

The good, the bad, and the ugly of impact of District determinations for continuity of learning services during school closures.

Throughout the Los Angeles area, families are dealing with the impact of loss of services due to school closures in response to the concerns about the coronavirus outbreak.

Navigating these uncertain times is difficult for all of us, and places unique challenges and impacts all of the parents that have unique burdens on their shoulders. The impact on parents of students who have disabilities and receive IEP services from their school districts is even more challenging due to closures. There is so much uncertainty about whether students will have access to any services, and whether home based learning opportunities will include provision for the continuation of skill-development in the specific areas that are addressed by related service providers.

What we know is that all students need continuity in their learning. This is the reason why so many districts have prioritized making learning opportunities available during the school closures at all. What we also know is that the kids with disabilities are even more vulnerable to the negative impact of disruption. Parents are left wondering how to best support continuity and access help in those service areas.

What about my child’s speech and language goals? Will he fall behind in development without speech services?

What about my child’s motor skills? How will she continue to progress without OT?

While it is true that this is a challenging and unprecedented time, and that for the most part what we have seen is districts that are doing the best they can to meet very challenging demands in the face of that uncertainty, the question surrounding provision of special education during school closures remains an important one.

We don’t know all of the answers yet as to how districts are handling these questions, as many districts do not have a plan that includes addressing special education and related services. It may be that for some students, the solution will not be available until the closures are done, and possible compensatory education can be addressed.

In the meantime, it is important as parents are digesting the available information from their districts about the closures to understand the impact of the decisions those districts made about distance learning.

The federal government has taken a position on whether special education services should continue to be made available during the school closures, and that position implies that if districts do not provide formal distance learning (instruction, curriculum, etc) to all students, then they are not obligated to continue special education services. This position has already been disputed by civil rights advocates, who maintain that all students with disabilities continue to have a right to a FAPE.

At the current time, the guidance from the federal government has caused some districts to carefully word what they are providing in order to avoid obligation for a FAPE during the school closures. Therefore, it is important for parents to understand the different terminology and what it may mean for immediate access to services at this time. Keep in mind that we are not providing this information in order to imply that districts are not actually obligated to provide a FAPE in certain circumstances, but only to give families guidance on what to expect based on the statements from their districts.

Distance Learning (and related terms) versus Optional Opportunities (or Enrichment Activities)

If a school district uses a term like “distance learning,” “remote instruction,” “online curriculum” or something similar – a term that clearly indicates that instruction and assignments are formally being provided, then the district is without a doubt obligated to provide equal access to such education to students with a disability, including providing those students with a FAPE.

If a school district uses a term like “optional learning resources” or “enrichment activities,” then it is less clear – based on the guidance from the federal government at least – that they have to provide special education students with continuation of their instruction and services. Again, this is not the interpretation of organizations like COPAA.

The Good: Planning for Continuation of Special Education

Some school districts have plans in place that at least acknowledge the inclusion of special education and related services in what they are trying to provide during the closures.

For example, a district’s plan may state that related service providers will work to provide the service minutes in the IEP through alternate formats that are being utilized for home instruction. Other districts have stated that the case carrier assigned will work with parents to develop a plan to address service delivery models. Some districts are working on providing home activities and instructions for implementation of skill-building in related service areas so that students can continue to work on IEP goals while at home.

While it may be ideal for IEP meetings to have been held to make these determinations, the reality is that decisions were made quickly regarding the closures. These districts fall in the “good” category because as compared with other districts, they are at least making an attempt to consider special education services in their plans to deliver remote learning opportunities.

The Bad: Ignoring Special Education Services

The majority of districts whose plans we have reviewed fall into this category. While these districts state that they are providing distance learning, and while some even have robust plans for the delivery of instruction and assignments, there is no mention whatsoever of if and how special education will be delivered.

This means that the overall district plan simply has not taken special education kids into consideration. Parents are left wondering if service providers will communicate with them, if any support will be given for those areas, and what the impact will be on their child in the long run.

The Ugly: Planning with the Intention of Stopping Special Education Services

Several districts appear to be very intentional in the language used to talk about their plans during the school closure so that they do not become obligated – based on the federal guidance – to provide anything to special education students. These districts use phrases like “optional learning opportunities” or “enrichment activities” to describe what will be provided to students. By doing so, they are not providing instruction per se, and therefore are hoping not to be held to the necessity of providing equal access to students with disabilities.

What is most interesting is that a review of these district’s plans and resources indicates that for some, the “activities” they provide to parents are very similar to the curriculum activities provided to students in the districts that are providing ongoing remote instruction, with the exception that the assignments may not be graded and there is not ongoing teacher communication.

What this means as a practical matter for families

This does not mean that parents shouldn’t be proactive in asking about services and support from related service providers during home instruction due to closure, no matter what category the districts fall into. But it does mean from a practical standpoint that districts may not be prepared to provide services to students with disabilities during the closure, and that even with proactive engagement on the part of families, the districts that are providing no home instruction or only “optional” activities are likely to deny any services during this time. The reality is, many students with disabilities will miss crucial supports that are needed for continued progress towards their IEP goals.

We are here to help! Contact us if your child is impacted by school closures and you need assistance during this uncertain time.