March 20, 2020 Update on School Closures: Understanding the Obligations Related to IEP Meetings
We are living in unprecedented times. The concerns about the spread of the coronavirus and the resulting public health crisis have lead to a statewide stay at home order, and school closures have been implemented. Those school closures are likely to be longer term than we anticipated at first, possibly even until the end of the school year.
Parents of students with disabilities are faced with unique challenges in light of these school closures. While all parents are faced with unprecedented difficulties, forced to home-school their students for an unknown amount of time, sometimes with limited resources to do so, parents of kids with disabilities also have to worry about the services and supports that are missing. Students with disabilities rely on services to support their educational progress, and to address their unique needs. Without those services, parents fear regression and possibly irreparable harm.
Anytime there is a significant change to a disabled child’s educational program, the IEP process is the vehicle by which those changes should be decided. The IEP is the critical central component to educating students with disabilities. So it is no surprise that a pressing question in this time is whether IEP teams still need to meet when school closures are in effect.
An IEP meeting is appropriate anytime there is a change of placement.
Parents’ procedural safeguards place a great deal of importance on IEP meetings whenever there is a change of placement. The IEP process allows for parents to participate in teams that make placement decisions. IEP meetings about a change of placement allow for parents to meaningfully participate in decisions about services and goals that will be implemented in the new placement. Even in situations in which Districts have a right to change a student’s placement without parent consent (such as for an interim alternative placement due to behavior/expulsion issues for example), an IEP meeting is typically required first. And in some circumstances, after a change of placement has occurred, Districts are required to hold an IEP meeting in 30 days so that the team at the new placement can discuss suggested updates to goals and services with Parents.
School closures mean that students are educated at home. This is effectively a change of placement. Instruction in the home setting, although unusual, is actually already a possible placement on the continuum of educational placements for students with disabilities.
While in this circumstance, school closures were necessary due to our current health crisis, this does to change the fact that they effectively result in a change of placement. There are important and logical reasons why an IEP meeting should be held to discuss this change, similar to why a 30 day IEP meeting would be held after a child moves to a new placement in normal circumstances. Doing so would allow parents and the team to discuss implementation of supports and services in this new placement so that the child could continue to make progress.
There is already a precedent for holding Districts to IEP requirements during school closures.
Guidance from the federal government has previously been issued on this matter. In 2012, school districts were faced with school closures due to Hurricane Sandy, and had difficulty trying to meet all of the requirements for IEPs. The federal Department of Education was contacted for guidance, and on November 20, 2012, OSERS issued a letter documenting its position.
It is important to note that OSERS first commended the school districts for the efforts made during difficult times to work to ensure the provision of special education. Throughout the letter, it was clear that OSERS fully understood that the school districts implementing school closures due to this natural disaster were facing difficult circumstances out of their control, and were doing their best under such circumstances.
IEPs are still required
With that being said, the letter clearly stated that the requirements of the IDEA were still in effect, including timelines for assessments and IEP meetings. OSERS noted that for assessments, the IDEA permits states to establish their own timelines for evaluations, and that New York, the state in question, could therefore establish a different timeframe legislatively if necessary to address the concerns for districts whose operations were significantly impacted.
As to IEP meetings, the letter made it clear that the timelines for IEP meetings still applied, but highlighted the fact that there was already flexibility in the law that could be utilized in these circumstances. First, parents and districts were allowed to agree to modify an IEP without a full meeting. Second, the law allowed for alternate means of participation for parents in IEP meetings, such as through conference telephone calls.
This letter is instructive to districts in the current situation of school closures. While it is not possible due to the concerns over spread of the COVID-19 virus and stay-at-home orders in place for IEP meetings to take place in person, alternate means such as conference calls or video conferencing are certainly still possible, and would enable compliance with IEP requirements.
During school closures, the collaborative IEP process is more critical than ever.
Congress considers IEPs to be the “cooperative vehicle” by which appropriate educational outcomes for students with disabilities can be achieved, and in this unprecedented time of school closures, such cooperation is even more critical. The IEP process is designed in the law to be collaborative, with Districts and Parents to be equal team members in decisions regarding a child’s program. Parents are recognized as having significant information relevant to the child’s needs to provide to the team, and to have the right to meaningfully participate in the process.
If ever there was a time for collaborative team meetings, it is now.
Students with disabilities all across the country suddenly had a change in placement. The situation leading to school closures is out of the district’s control. No one claims it will be easy to fully implement a FAPE, or that it is easy to deal with all of the other factors that districts are faced with in this time of crisis. But working together, the IEP teams – including service providers, parents, teachers, and district administrators, can do it. Teams can come up with alternate means for implementation of services and supports.
Now is the time for innovation and unprecedented solutions to unprecedented problems. The IEP meeting is the vehicle by which parents and districts can come together to develop such solutions. Already, we have seen stories from across the country of schools and families working together to ensure that IEP goals are still addressed. If some districts are finding ways to do it, others can too. If school closures are going to be long term, the IEP meetings should be mandated to plan for how FAPE can be provided during that time.
If you want more information about educational services during the coronavirus school closures, check out our main page dedicated to this topic.