Updated: September 14, 2020
School closures brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic have challenged educators to serve all of their students, but it has been especially challenging to continue to offer the requisite services to students with disabilities. What can states do to support all learners during remote learning?
The cornerstone of U.S. education policy is that all students deserve access to a high-quality education. Students identified as having a disability require additional special education services and supports that go beyond what the general education model typically provides. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), as well as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, all schools receiving federal funding are required to provide specialized instruction, support, and accommodations as needed to ensure that all students receive a free and appropriate public education. Currently, an estimated seven million students are served under the IDEA, representing 14 percent of our nation’s student population, with an additional two percent of students served under Section 504.
Students may require special education due to a variety of disabilities, including physical disabilities and health needs (e.g., cerebral palsy, epilepsy) as well as learning, psychological, and emotional disabilities (e.g., autism, learning disabilities). Special education can include direct services such as specialized reading instruction and occupational therapy, as well as accommodations and modifications to the learning environment, such as use of text-to-speech software or use of visual images to support written content.
Given current recommendations to practice social distancing, provision of direct services may be impacted. While some students may be able to access these services via remote learning, other services (e.g., physical therapy, occupational therapy, etc.) that require hands-on support from specialized instructional support personnel may be difficult to provide.
Some accommodations and modifications to academic materials and instruction may still be provided in a remote learning environment, though there may be barriers to access for students with physical disabilities who require specific devices or software (e.g., switches, text-to-speech software) in order to access instructional content and materials.
Secretary DeVos submitted a report to Congress on April 28th, 2020 stating that waivers regarding critical sections of the IDEA that guarantee a Free and Appropriate Public Education and require students with disabilities to be taught in the least restrictive environment are not necessary. “While the Department has provided extensive flexibility to help schools transition, there is no reason for Congress to waive any provision designed to keep students learning.”
The report did recommend several waivers, including a waiver to extend the evaluation timeline for children with disabilities transitioning from infant and toddler services provided through Part C of the IDEA to school-age services provided through Part B, as well as a waiver allowing individuals utilizing the IDEA personnel preparation grants whose employment may have been interrupted by COVID-19 to defer work or repayment requirements. Additionally, Secretary DeVos recommended a waiver allowing LEAs to keep funds allotted through the federal Perkins Act that were not used due to the national emergency.
Given the unexpected closures of schools across the country, states and districts must now work to ensure that all students are provided with accessible academic content. The US Department of Education has issued a number of fact sheets and FAQs to guide states and districts as they work to ensure that, in addition to students’ health and safety, their civil rights are maintained as well.
U.S. Department of Education Resources
Policymakers should work closely with their state education leaders to determine what is needed to serve students with disabilities. The U.S. Department of Education said, “Although federal law requires distance instruction to be accessible to students with disabilities, it does not mandate specific methodologies.” Many modifications, accommodations, and services can be provided via an online format.
States should make every effort to offer flexibility and prioritize collaboration in order to ensure that students with disabilities receive the accommodations and services provided under their IEP or 504 plan. These would include supporting collaboration between special education and general education teachers to provide modifications to any materials presented digitally or in hard copy. Additionally, districts should consider ways to support special education teachers and service providers in evaluating their caseloads to determine how best to provide services or offer support to parents.
Provide Funding and Funding Flexibility
In order to ensure continued reimbursement of some special education services, policymakers may need to support the provision of funding flexibility under state Medicaid plans to allow for the provision of school-based related services via teletherapy. The Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services approved the use of telemedicine in 2015, and, given the current COVID-19 pandemic, have provided policy options and suggested language for states on including telehealth within state Medicaid plans.
Additional funds or flexibility of use of current funds may be required to provide students with home access to the programs and equipment necessary to access online learning at home, including Assistive Technology such as switches or text-to-speech software. The Federal stimulus package includes $13.5 billion for education to be distributed across states. These funds can be spent on efforts to help students with disabilities, including providing technology, services, and adaptive equipment.