On September 30, 2021, the US Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) released new guidance: “Return to School Roadmap: Development and Implementation of Individualized Education Programs.” OSERS reaffirms important rights and describes how these rights apply during the pandemic.
Here are the big takeaways:
• School divisions are responsible for ensuring that a free appropriate public education (FAPE) is available to all students with disabilities during the pandemic, whether students are attending school in-person, virtually or in a hybrid model. This includes ensuring all students with a disability have access to all special education and related services necessary to receive FAPE.
• Appropriate IEPs must be in place at the beginning of the school year. In some but not all cases, it may be appropriate to convene an IEP meeting to determine if revisions are necessary to deliver FAPE.
• Many children have been exposed to trauma, disruptions in learning, physical isolation, and disengagement from school and peers, negatively affecting their mental health. A child whose behavior impedes their learning may need new or increased services and supports in order to receive FAPE. This may include specially designed instruction, academic supports, positive behavioral interventions, counseling, psychological services, school health services, and social work services.
• Schools should avoid routinely using discipline to address a child’s behaviors that may arise when students return to school and consider developing or revising, or ensuring the provision of, positive behavioral interventions and supports and other strategies, as appropriate.
• School divisions must address the school-related health needs of students with disabilities who are at increased risk of severe illness from COVID 19. The IEP team must consider whether COVID 19 prevention strategies are necessary for the provision of FAPE based on individualized information such as medical or health records. If the IEP Team determines that COVID 19 prevention and risk reduction measures (such as mask wearing or sanitizing) are necessary in order for a child with a disability to receive FAPE, the team must include these in the child’s IEP.
• The IEP Team should consider adverse impacts of the COVID 19 pandemic on each child with a disability. IEPs may need to be revised to address lost skills, lack of expected progress, or new areas of need (e.g., behavioral, social, emotional, and mental health needs) that arose during the pandemic.
• Teams should consider updated data, including parental input, that reflects the child’s present level of functioning following extended time without in-person special education services.
• A student’s IEP Team may determine that compensatory services are necessary to mitigate the impact of disruptions and delays in providing appropriate services to the student, for example if an evaluation was delayed or an IEP was not fully implemented.
• If a school division is providing the option of virtual instruction to all students, the division must ensure that a student with a disability enrolled in the virtual program has an IEP that provides all the services and supports necessary for the child to receive FAPE in the virtual school, and the school division must ensure that the IEP is implemented.
• In school divisions that do not offer a virtual option to all students, IDEA also includes “home instruction” in the continuum of placements a school division must make available to ensure FAPE is provided. Home instruction could be delivered through a virtual, in-person, or hybrid approach.