An Update on Special Education During School Closures: Understanding What the California Department of Education and USDOE Statements Mean.

Confused about whether your child should be receiving special education services if their school is closed because of COVID-19? You are not alone. Read on to understand the current guidance from state and federal education officials on special education during school closures.

By: Mandy Favaloro

Soon after the COVID-19 crisis caused schools across a number of states to shut down, the United States Department of Education posted a Q&A on its website regarding states’ responsibilities to provide special education services under the federal Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act while their public schools were closed.

Some interpreted the USDOE’s Q&A to mean that public schools were prohibited from offering educational programs to special education students via distance learning. The Q&A also suggested that the right to a legally required free and appropriate public education was contingent upon whether general education students were receiving instruction, too.

Based on the USDOEs Q&A, some school districts decided to halt instruction entirely, under the assumption that they need not provide special education students with a free and appropriate public education during the closures. In other words, some districts chose not to provide special education during school closures, and therefore did not provide any instruction to any students through distance learning.

As a result of both the backlash and mounting confusion, the USDOE has attempted to clarify its position through a “supplemental fact sheet” it posted on its website.

School districts can effectively provide services via modifications such as video and telephonic conferences.

The USDOE stated that school districts should not close or deny distance learning opportunities, particularly because they can be used to provide services to special education students. The USDOE made clear that school districts can effectively provide many special education during school closures, including providing services via modifications, such as through video and telephonic conferences. 

However, the USDOE also noted that the nature of some related services render them challenging, and perhaps unsafe, to administer from afar, such as occupational therapy. Needless to say, many special education students who receive physical therapy services (and other services considered unsuitable for refashioning) will be negatively affected during the school closures.

In California, on March 13, 2020, Governor Newsom signed Executive Order N-26-20 ensuring State funding for Local Educational Agencies (LEA), which includes school districts and charter schools, in the event of physical closure due to the threat of COVID-19. The Executive Order required the California Department of Education (CDE) to issue guidance on several topics, including ensuring students with disabilities receive a free appropriate public education (FAPE) consistent with their individualized education program (IEP) and meeting other procedural requirements under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and California law. 

The CDE latest update was issued on March 20, 2020 which included a number of FAQ.  School districts were urged to continue to provide special education and related services as outlined in the IEP through a distance learning model if they were able to do so through alternative service delivery models as appropriate for each student. In other words, if possible, school districts should provide special education during school closures. 

Educational services provided to special education students should be commensurate with those identified in the IEP for each student to ensure educational benefit.

The CDE also indicated that when a school district is providing instruction through a distance learning model that they must create access to the instruction or students with disabilities, including planning for appropriate modifications or accommodations based on the individualized needs of each student and the differences created by the change in modality (e.g. virtual vs. classroom-based). Educational and support services provided should be commensurate with those identified in the IEP for each student to ensure educational benefit.

The CDE also noted that once regular school sessions resume, now expected to be in the Fall of 2020, that IEP teams should make determinations regarding whether or not compensatory education services may be needed for a student by assessing whether or not the student continued making progress in the general education curriculum, or any alternative course of study specified in their IEP, or toward meeting their IEP goals and/or if any regression occurred during the period of school site closure.

Despite the USDOE’s and CDE’s attempts to calm fears and refine their positions, you may be confused as to what special education services your children should be receiving, and what legal options are available to them in the event the services are not provided.

We at A2Z Educational Advocates are here to help parents advocate for special education during school closures.

If you have any questions or concerns regarding the impact school closures have on your student’s education, please contact us at (310) 573-1430 for a free preliminary consultation.

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