Virtual public school education was unheard of just 20 years ago, but now due to COVID-19 it permeates the lives of almost everyone with children in the public school system. While virtual education is a godsend for some families, for many others it is an incredible challenge for their children, especially for children with special needs. Many families wonder what their child can and should receive during this time.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
This is the federal law that governs the special education requirements of schools and that includes virtual special education during COVID-19. This law requires that schools provide a specialized, individualized, and appropriate education for children with special needs that includes the necessary accommodations, related services, aides, and supports that they need to progress. This program is created in an annual document called an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and it must be specific to that child, and now specific to their virtual educational needs. Each state also has added additional protections into this federal law and often has additional regulations that schools must follow in respect to their students with challenges.
IDEA requires school to ensure students with special needs are able to access their education whether it is offered within a school environment or online. Parents need to know that it is important to speak up and to engage with their school to make sure that staff know their child’s needs and what isn’t working in the virtual program that has been provided. The best way to do this in writing so you can make sure the school received your requests and that there is not confusion. With everything that is going on right now in the world, it is important to understand that things do get lost in translation and the world of public education is having to make a great number of changes very quickly.
Your Child’s IEP
Every parent with a child with special needs should make sure that their child’s IEP is specifically crafted to address the virtual program. Often goals will be different and certainly services will be. If your child has learning disabilities or is behind academically and participating in a virtual program, request that the materials they receive be at an instructional level verses their grade level, so that they can read and understand them. Depending on your child’s disabilities, you will want to ensure that teachers or aides are scheduling one to one virtual sessions with your child to ensure understanding and comprehension or to provide necessary one to one instruction, especially if your child struggles in reading or math. In terms of related services such as counseling, occupational therapy, speech therapy, social skills training, or even behavioral services, your school should be ensuring your child is still receiving these services in a virtual format. Many speech therapists, counselors, OT and PT providers are meeting one to one with children and parents on face to face virtual forums to work with the child. While it is far from perfect it does provide some level of support for these students and can slow regression.
Interim Private Placements
For children with significant intellectual disabilities who cannot access a virtual education because they cannot use a computer or be educated without constant and direct one to one assistance, you may consider discussing with your school the possibility of interim private placements. It is also important to discuss options such as one to one zoom instruction, a one to one aide within a home environment, or other options so your child can actually engage in instruction. Your school must provide your child a program that is accessible – they cannot simply be left without educational services for the next year. If that is an issue your child is facing, considering finding an advocate or attorney in your state if no in person instruction is available or safe for your child.
Parents need to know to be vocal about their child’s needs and struggles during this time. While this is a difficult time for most parents, and there must be grace and understanding towards schools, parents need to know that there are a variety of options available from one to one virtual instruction to private services, and they shouldn’t be afraid of asking for what their child needs.
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Catherine M. Michael, J.D. is licensed and practices throughout the states of Indiana, Texas, and Michigan. She represents students and their families in a variety of education and personal injury matters including Special Education Due Process, Section 504 matters, expulsion, disciplinary issues, personal injury of children including injury, sexual abuse, molestation, and rape cases both in and out of school environments, private school issues and discipline as well as other civil rights and disability claims experienced by students. She possesses extensive knowledge regarding special education due process, teacher and student discipline and dismissal matters, Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), personal injury of children in schools, and other civil rights matters. Catherine Michael has been featured hundreds of times in both the national and local media. She is a frequent guest on syndicated radio and television shows for her education law expertise. Her nearly two decade career in education has focused on ensuring that the needs of children in schools are met. She has represented school shooting victims, children abused in school, and hundreds of special needs children who families needed a voice.