Iowa School Closures and Special Education: Now What?

Students and families across the state were impacted by the decision to close schools for the remainder of the 2019/2020 school year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This abrupt shift left families wondering how they would make sure that their students were “ready to learn” in the fall, a standard set forth by Governor Kim Reynolds, when she made the announcement on April 17, 2020. Families of children with IEPs, receiving special education services through the schools, were perhaps hit the hardest by this announcement, especially considering the mixed messages coming out of the Department of Education in Washington, D.C.

The Department of Education ended up issuing a memo clarifying schools’ obligations to provide a FAPE to students with special education needs. The memo provided suggestions as to how schools might provide typical special education accommodations and services online, including “extensions of time for assignments, videos with accurate captioning or embedded sign language interpreting, accessible reading materials, and many speech or language services through video conferencing.”

In this memo, the USDOE states definitively that even in this time of COVID-19, school “districts must provide a FAPE consistent with the need to protect the health and safety of students with disabilities and those individuals providing education, specialized instruction, and related services to these students.” USDOE further refers the reader to an earlier USDOE publication warning districts against discrimination in response to COVID-19: “Educational institutions should take special care to ensure that all students are able to study and learn in an environment that is healthy, safe, and free from bias or discrimination.” United States Department of Education, “OCR Coronavirus Statement,” March 4, 2020.

The Iowa Department of Education has reiterated these same standards for Iowa schools. If Iowa school districts are offering continuing learning opportunities to students, then they are required to make accommodations for access for those students with disabilities. However, when it comes to receiving access to special education services, such as speech therapy or occupational therapy, the IEP teams are required to meet (typically via teleconference apps or sites) to determine if adaptations can be made and if services need to continue during this time.  Children with special education services may be eligible for “make-up” services or compensatory sessions once schools re-open if there has been regression, but this determination shall be made by the IEP team. Iowa Department of Education “FAQs for Iowa Families and Parents of Students with Disabilities receiving Special Education, or Parents of Children receiving Early Intervention,” March 26, 2020.

What Do I Do Now?

As a parent or caregiver, YOU ARE A MEMBER OF THE IEP TEAM. So often, parents feel like they play a lesser role in IEP meetings, but now, more than ever, your input will be invaluable.

  • Make a Request. Write a letter to the Director of Special Education, School Principal, or Superintendent and request a virtual meeting with the IEP team to determine if services can be re-established using technology or proper social distancing techniques so as to maintain services for your child.
  • Keep Records. Make a list of any supplementary services you acquire for your child during this time or over the summer. This includes private tutors, ABA therapies, speech therapy or other related services that you obtain for the benefit of your child. Note how often and how long these classes or sessions last, so you can identify how many hours of supplemental instruction or intervention was obtained over the break. Also, keep track of expenses incurred to access these services, as you may be able to submit them for reimbursement.
  • Note Any Changes in Your Child. Be observant of any changes in your child’s behavior or skills. Keep a journal for evidence of regression in skills or new behaviors you notice during this time. This is good place to note any interventions or services you used to deal with any changes or regression, such as emergency mental health services, medication changes or one-on-one adult supports during the day.
  • Keep All Scheduled Meetings or Due Process Hearings. Request these meetings or hearings be conducted via teleconference or video-conferencing applications. While the federal government has given schools relaxed timelines for completions of evaluations or such hearings and meetings, it is important to keep your scheduled meetings, as it prevents starting the new school year behind a back-log of IEP meetings, 504 Evaluations, etc.  Stay up-to-date and current with all meetings and ensure that your child experiences a continuity that these health care emergencies can not disrupt.

If you have questions about this post, or if you’d like help with a special education matter, please send me an email at wholeheartedwdm@gmail.com. 

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