Your Child’s Educational Rights While Crisis Schooling: IEPs and 504 Plans in a Pandemic
Your child’s IEP or 504 Plan do not disappear with remote learning and crisis schooling. Though some accommodations — like occupational therapy — are no longer achievable with social distancing, many are still helpful and appropriate. Here, learn your legal rights and options for securing educational services while in quarantine.
In these unsettling times, caregivers are begging for help and asking one key question with increasing regularity: When students with ADHD and learning disabilities are learning at home, are their schools obligated to provide them with the tools, supports, and accommodations critical to their academic success in the new classroom called “home?” And what can parents do to make sure their students’ schools are stepping up to provide those tools and remedy remote learning loss?
Implementing IEP/504 Plans Has Changed
The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) issued a Fact Sheet on March 21 that says public schools must provide a continued Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) to students with IEPs and 504 Plans “consistent with the need to protect the health and safety of students with disabilities and those individuals providing…services.” Here are some of the highlights from the Fact Sheet, including the rights to which you and your child are entitled:
1. A number of disability-related modifications and services may be effectively provided online, including extensions of time for assignments, videos with captioning, accessible reading materials, and many speech or language services through video conferencing.
2. Federal disability law allows for flexibility in determining how to meet the individual needs of students with disabilities. Determining how FAPE is provided may shift in this time of national emergency. You should know that the Stimulus Relief Bill, passed March 27, gave the DOE 30 days to seek waivers of certain special-education requirements and during that time it did not cut back on student/parent rights to FAPE.
3. Know that, even in ideal remote learning situations, it is often difficult to individualize instruction. In addition, hands-on related services like occupational and physical therapy cannot be offered remotely. A similar issue exists for students whose IEPs provide for an aide in the classroom to help the child with attention and/or behavioral problems.
4. Another requirement of IEP and and 504 Plans that cannot be provided under the limitations of social distancing is an educational evaluation, which is mandated to occur within a specific time period following a request submitted by parents. However, IEP and 504 meetings can be held by telephone or video conferencing, which should allow for opportunities to “meet “ and discuss modifications to IEPs and 504 Plans in keeping with remote learning requirements.
5. Many accommodations in Section 504 Plans — extended time on exams or classroom strategies to address a child’s ADHD — may not be critical in home schooling environments, since many states and school districts are eliminating standardized exams for the remainder of the year.
How Parents Can Optimize IEPs and 504 Plans
Beyond the legal issues, home instruction is proving difficult for many families. Many of the most vulnerable students – those who are homeless, low income, or undocumented – have no Internet access or computers, despite efforts to ramp up availability of services and technology. Parents are expected to guide their children’s education, often while doing their own jobs remotely. Many parents are not equipped to deal with their child’s curriculum or learning challenges. As one parent shared in an email this morning, “The things they are asking us to do are so difficult. There are formulas and problems that my daughter has no clue how to solve. I didn’t go to school for special-education management.”
So what can parents do to help their children get the benefits of their IEP or 504 Plan while learning at home?
First, parents should take some preliminary steps:
- Take a moment to review your child’s IEP or 504 Plan, noting accommodations and supports that have helped him excel at school.
- Think about whether an accommodation is primarily technological – audio books, text-to-speech or speech-to-text software – and determine whether the accommodations being offered are working well
- If an accommodation or support had been provided by direct teacher support or by support from another professional – speech therapy, behavior supports, occupational or physical therapy – consider how your child is managing in the absence of such support when working at home.
Next, communicate with your child’s school. Who you talk with depends on how things are going with home instruction and which supports your child needs but is not getting in an effective way.
- If issues are primarily technological, find out if there is someone at the school acting as the point person on technology for this period of home schooling. A brief check in with the teacher, principal, or IEP/504 chairperson can point you in the right direction.
- If issues relate to missing supports that are generally provided in person, you may be able to contact your child’s therapist directly. If not, reach out to the classroom teacher or IEP/504 chairperson about how to get in touch with your child’s therapist or how the school plans to provide these important services. One possibility can be working in a small group or one-on-one instruction on a video platform.
Keep in mind that your child’s teacher and school are also struggling with this experiment in remote learning. Delivering classroom instruction online is challenging to teachers, and even the most skilled teacher will probably not be as effective as she is in the classroom.
- Keep the lines of communication open with your child’s teacher(s), but recognize that they may be teaching while facing their own challenges. Be kind, patient, and firm in expressing your concerns.
- When you believe an issue requires the attention of the IEP/504 Team, be persistent in getting their attention. Avoid “the blame game.” As you would in an in-person meeting, be collaborative and help everyone you understand that they need to work together to make sure your child isn’t denied FAPE while learning from home.
Make Up for Skills That May Have Been Lost
The DOE recognizes that situations may arise in which children do not receive services (or sufficient services) while schools are closed. They specifically note that if this occurs, “a child’s IEP team (or appropriate personnel under Section 504) must make an individualized determination whether and to what extent compensatory services may be needed, consistent with applicable requirements, including to make up for any skills that may have been lost.” This is far from ideal, but parents should keep this in mind for the next school year.
One small glimmer of light is that learning at home is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to observe, understand, and support your children as learners. Does your child have difficulty following her teacher’s complicated explanations? Seeing how the teacher presents a lesson, while watching how your child responds, is more illuminating than just reviewing your child’s homework or looking at her exam grades. This time at home together can help you better understand how she learns. Through careful observation, it is possible to identify patterns that help you better understand your child’s learning strengths and challenges and enable you to choose strategies based on that understanding.
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