Extended school closures are becoming the norm as the novel coronavirus spreads and districts are moving to put in place equitable remote learning systems as a result. But how those systems will ensure a free and appropriate public education for students with disabilities, who are among those hit hardest by closures, is still uncertain. 

In guidance released Saturday, the U.S. Department of Education urged districts to “pull together to do what’s right for our nation’s students,” according to a press release.

“It was extremely disappointing to hear that some school districts were using information from the Department of Education as an excuse not to educate kids,” Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said in the statement, adding schools should continue distance learning through building closures “rather than educate no students out of fear.” 

When the coronavirus first hit schools on the West Coast weeks ago, many districts leaned toward shutting schools for a few days to two weeks with no distance learning option. The move made it easier for districts with limited resources to ensure they weren’t providing some students with a continued education while leaving others behind, including those with special needs.

But that has quickly changed as closures are extending from mere weeks to months. 

More than three-quarters of states have issued statewide school closures, and Kansas is the first to officially extend the closure until the end of the school year. Others are considering following in Kansas’ footsteps. 

“Parents are getting impatient because they’re worried about their kids with special needs not getting services right now,” said Monica McHale-Small, president of the Learning Disabilities Association of America and a former principal.

National Center for Learning Disabilities President and CEO Lindsay Jones also said parents are “going to reject a [district’s] message that says, ‘Our hands are tied. You’ll sue us if we do something wrong, so we can’t do anything.’”

Schools are “scrambling” to figure out how to provide an appropriate special education during closures, McHale-Small said. 

The New York City Department of Education —​ which has closed schools until April, but could remain closed for the rest of the school year —​ provided teacher training for a week while students remained home before launching its remote learning plan. 

Greg Rodriguez, high school director for Brooklyn Laboratory Charter Schools and a former special education teacher, said his school has designated personnel, like hallway monitors and others, to sift through individual education programs and prepare fact sheets for special education teachers as they develop plans for continued learning. 

“We’re going to be responsible for pushing skills and knowledge [for students with disabilities] on the same level as other kids,” Rodriguez said. “This means that the gaps between the two populations could grow if we’re holding them at a lower bar.” 

Instead of allowing that to happen, teachers at the school conduct daily check-ins with students and provide additional support through video conferencing, like clarifications on assignments, he added. 

Other schools have more work to do. “I see some parents saying, ‘Well, we got packets and nobody’s offered to help,’” McHale-Small said. 

Some special ed teachers are being asked to provide virtual support for students who don’t have experience with online courses and are learning the ropes themselves. Meanwhile, a lack of communication with parents as districts train and prepare teachers can increase uneasiness.

If you don’t have anything to communicate yet and you’re still figuring [it] out, then parents get upset that you aren’t telling them anything,” McHale-Small said. “As soon as administrators know what their plan is or if they’re working on a plan, then they should get parents to understand that people are working hard behind the scenes.” 

Alexandria City Public Schools Superintendent Gregory C. Hutchings, for example, posts daily videos with updates and answers to questions from parents. In last Tuesday’s video, he said he received over 400 questions from the community in just 24 hours. 

“We want to make sure that you have the necessary supports that you’re going to need in order to make it through these times at home with your kids,” he said to parents in the daily Q&A. “Getting in contact with your child’s teacher via email or phone call is definitely going to be helpful and beneficial. You may be able to ask for some strategies that can be used at home.” 

Questions remain over IDEA timelines, non-instructional services

While the Alexandria district and others are ahead of the curve with training and resources already in place to provide appropriate services, those that have special needs students with underlying medical conditions will have to revisit their remote learning plans when — or if — schools reopen.

Underlying medical conditions that compromise immune systems can put students at a greater risk from coronavirus. For those students, schools will have to plan for an extended period of remote learning while other students are back in school, said education attorney Ronald Stadler.

Additional questions remain over how to provide virtual counseling, speech therapy and other non-instructional services for students with special needs during closures. For now, the department is urging districts to continue as many services as virtually possible. 

But those extra services come with additional costs that are at least twice those for general education students, according to the National School Boards Association, and will likely strain already thin budgets. 

“Right now we are still in the process of figuring out what all those related services look like,” Rodriguez said, noting he is awaiting more guidance from the state. 

The NSBA, in a letter sent Thursday to DeVos, is asking for more guidance from the federal government as well. 

The organization’s executive director and CEO, Thomas J. Gentzel, warned in the correspondence that there is a “real possibility” districts will face increased staff shortages as the pandemic spreads, including shortages among occupational therapists, psychologists, speech therapists and other specialists. 

Closures have also turned IEP meeting timelines on their heads. 

“Public school boards and their attorneys are now working to schedule thousands of IEP meetings via phone or other electronic devices to determine how to provide the services either virtually or as compensatory education once schools reopen,” the NSBA pointed out.

The department, which said it received a number of inquiries around the implications of school closures on meeting IDEA timelines​, is encouraging districts to work with parents and agree on timeline extensions. 

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