The Five Rs: Navigating Virtual and Hybrid Special Education
Authors: Caroline Nelson, Attorney and Counselor at Law PLLC
Keywords: advocacy, IDEA, remote learning, virtual instruction, hybrid programs, in-person, COVID-19, compensatory services, collaboration, parent support, regression, self-care
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The arrival of last spring’s pandemic pulled the educational rug out from under families and schools. IDEA and public education never contemplated a COVID-type public health and economic crisis. Public education was already complicated, dynamic and far from perfect, but one thing most of us never questioned was the ability for kids to go to a physical school building with in-person classes, activities, lunch and unstructured time. When crisis mode suddenly isolated and locked us down, schools and families scrambled to find a way to return to the school year. At first, we thought it might be a few weeks, and then we understood we would finish the semester learning from home. It didn’t dawn on most of us until even later that remote, virtual, and now, hybrid school would be a longer-term situation.
As schools scrambled to jump-start the school year again, their first efforts were to push concentrated, prioritized content out to students at home while making do with existing resources and knowledge. This was school for all kids. At the same time, the special education community had its own realization that on top of a dramatically changed and reduced overall foundation for everybody, IEP services, supports and accommodations would be even harder to deliver.
Parents of children with IEPs were asking the same questions all parents were asking: How am I supposed to be the implementer? How will I balance this new job with adult responsibilities that are just as disrupted? How is the overall situation going to impact our family, and what do we need to move through it? And, unlike every other family, parents of children with disabilities were facing bigger problems like the reduction of hands-on professional expertise, therapies, specialized instruction and services, social experiences, and daily structure. All of these produced (and are still producing) ripple effects that speed up student regression and intensify the urgency to come up with meaningful solutions.
School districts and state and federal education agencies had all the same realizations at the same time. No one was under the illusion that IEPs written for in-person school could be fully implemented in the at-home format. Schools were instructed to bring education back as best they could, and in the absence of legal rules providing a blueprint or accountability, TEA and the US Department of Education began rolling out guidance that has continued to come out over time.
Schools and families alike dove back into the spring equally alarmed about student rights, school responsibilities, and the magnified impact of school closures on students with disabilities. In order to shape how we develop possible solutions as a team for our children, let’s consider The Five Rs to make the most out of remote or hybrid schooling for students with disabilities.
Know the rules: the IDEA “playbook” remains in place, and requirements are unchanged, despite the pandemic.
- New IEPs (Annual or Review) are to be written for traditional, in-person instruction.
- ARD/IEP meetings still take place, can be requested by parents, and must have all required members in attendance; video or phone conferences can replace in-person meetings until public health permits otherwise.
- Amendments to ARD/IEP paperwork are allowed for broader purposes than before. This is to allow changes while avoiding gatherings, but parents can always request an actual ARD/IEP meeting, even if the issue can be addressed via amendment.
- Child Find, Transition, and Evaluation requirements remain as before.
- Compensatory services must be provided for services in an IEP that are not delivered or should have been provided, but the child’s educational need was missed or not addressed. These services should be designed to put the student in the place where they would have been had the services been provided initially. While they can be provided as a direct 1:1 replacement (e.g. the school didn’t originally deliver 5 therapy sessions, so 5 therapy sessions will be provided), they do not have to be. Compensatory services must still be individualized.
- Dispute resolution options remain in place as before, including ARD/IEP meeting, resolution session, mediation, TEA complaint, Due Process.
While state and federal guidance currently holds IDEA requirements in place, it also acknowledges and allows flexibility for schools who will struggle to deliver to these standards during periods of remote instruction.
- Schools have been directed to make good faith efforts to provide as much as they can under the circumstances. “Good faith” includes meaningful, regular communication and collaboration with parents in order to prioritize what can be delivered, to make adjustments in response to student engagement and progress, and to support parents as the main at-home implementers.
- All stakeholders, school and parents alike, have been advised to expect the first approach for remedying gaps in services during remote instruction to come in the form of compensatory services.
- Congress continues to consider the possibility of waiving or altering IDEA requirements in order to provide relief to schools faced with obvious implementation problems. Keep an eye out for potential changes or advocacy opportunities.
- As disparate impacts of remote instruction on students with disabilities are noted over time, efforts to create new law addressing current conditions are materializing in some states through litigation.
Keep your child moving forward educationally by partnering with educators in good faith.
- One of the only resources not compromised by the pandemic is the creativity of your child’s team members. These service providers typically do not have discretion about school hours, personnel, health practices, or allocating resources. They are the ones with the most direct ability to keep trying creative options for instruction given the resources they have to work with and share with you. Vent your frustration carefully and advocate to and with the right positions.
- Develop a journal, data notebook, or snapshot-collecting system so you can record basic information over time about your child’s engagement and progress with remote instruction. Key information points about your child can include demeanor, motivation, interest, time on task, independence, and abilities with technology and instructional materials. Key information from you can include your take on whether and how much learning and progress is taking place. This data will be important for later discussions about compensatory services.
- You do not have to wait for the “end” to initiate a compensatory services conversation with your school. Compensatory services are typically to be delivered as soon as possible after a gap in order to minimize the disruption in a student’s progress. Because we can’t predict when the “end” of current IEP implementation difficulties will occur, consider initiating a compensatory services conversation as soon as you can identify something that might be able to be addressed given the current format. Making smaller requests as you go does not foreclose requests that may continue to arise.
You know what is right for your child. Keep advocacy efforts focused on your child’s unique needs, progress and well-being.
- Parents may be the first to identify a new need, an area of regression, or a surprising adaptation to remote instruction. Share this information with your student’s team. They can’t respond if they don’t know about it.
- Special education is still individualized, and the standard wisdom about not automatically pressing for what your neighbor’s child gets, unless your child has a need for the same thing, still holds. The flip-side is also true. It is often possible to add a creative or uncommon program element, even under current circumstances, if you start by bringing a data-supported description of your child’s need to the ARD/IEP team.
Complex problems rarely call for black-and-white answers. Consider these things that can happen at the same time:
- Feeling anxious or angry and working in good faith with the school
- Helping your child get as much as they can from virtual or hybrid school and gathering the information you need for a compensatory services discussion
- Having compassion for your professional counterparts and being a strong advocate
- Taking care of yourself and taking care of your child and family
- Important: You are a stronger family leader and advocate when you attend to your own needs.
- Take breaks, cut yourself slack, and be gentle with your own uncertainties and dilemmas!