As the U.S. Department of Education considers whether to recommend waivers from certain aspects of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, several organizations have joined together to support the special education community through the challenges caused by school closures.

The Educating All Learners Alliance, announced last week, features resources, case studies, webinars and virtual “office hours” and brings together special education and technology organizations, such as the National Center for Learning Disabilities and the International Society for Technology in Education. 

“We are all learning how to teach and support students in the post-COVID world on the fly and at a brutal pace,” Gabrielle Schlichtmann, executive director of nonprofit EdTogether, said in a press release.

Meanwhile, the Council for Exceptional Children has submitted a letter to the department supporting some flexibilities related to special education services only because of the “specific circumstance” of the pandemic. Others, however, have expressed concerns that waivers might compromise students’ civil rights.

“For many parents, it’s been very challenging,” says Lisa Mosko, the director of special education advocacy for Speak UP, a Los Angeles parent organization. “A lot of kids are really struggling with the loss of routine and with the loss of contact with their providers.”

Some experts suggest the school closures will have significant negative effects on students with special needs. David Bateman, a professor of educational leadership and special education at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, is advising districts that when schools reopen, “they need to evaluate the kids like crazy for serious regression.” Many students, he said, “will need more intensive services that they didn’t require prior to just three weeks ago.”

And Ellen Saideman, a Rhode Island disability rights lawyer and board member for the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, suggested that schools may be in the position of having to provide compensatory education for students that did not receive specific services during the closures. 

“The problem is you have a public health emergency,” she said “This is a time for parents and school districts to collaborate.”

‘An opportunity to create solutions’

Services delivered remotely can’t replace many of the in-person services that students with special needs require, especially those with severe disabilities. But some experts and parents also say a lasting, positive result of this crisis is that virtual education could become a more common way to meet students’ IEP goals in the future.

“If distance instruction or tele-intervention is an option, that is something the IEP team should consider,” said Mitchell Yell, a professor of special education at the University of South Carolina.

Already, in many rural districts, mental and behavioral health providers meet with their students virtually in order to cut back on driving long distances for appointments. Now, such services are becoming widespread while schools are closed. 

In Los Angeles, Mosko said she wonders whether the use of virtual services now could also improve special education in the future, especially because some families lack access to providers because of geography. 

“This whole shift,” she said, “is an opportunity for the district to create solutions that will actually help us post-school closures.”

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