What happens to LRE in the age of COVID?
First, some background: “LRE” stands for “least restrictive environment.” LRE is a bedrock principle of the IDEA, the law that governs special education in public schools. LRE requires that students with disabilities (SWD) receive their education, to the maximum extent appropriate, with non-disabled peers. Special education students should not be removed from regular classes unless, even with supplemental aids and services, education in regular classes cannot be achieved satisfactorily.
This basically means that you start with the presumption that a SWD should be educated in the general education classroom in their regular school alongside students without IEPs (non-disabled peers). The school should provide supports to the SWD within that setting to make that possible. The school should only remove a SWD and put them in a more restrictive setting after exhausting efforts to support them in the previous setting.
There is a continuum of settings, starting with the general education classroom with push-in supports, moving on to a general education classroom with pull-outs, onward to self-contained special education classrooms that only contain students with IEPs. The most restrictive settings are schools that only have SWD, residential schools for SWD and homebound placement.
A general guidepost: the more contact with non-disabled peers, the less restrictive the setting.
COVID is throwing LRE for a loop.
In many school districts, some or all students are learning from home now. This isn’t truly a change of placement (probably) since it affects students with and without disabilities. But learning from home does look an awful lot like homebound, a very restrictive setting. So it raises questions as to the impact on SWD, and whether they are getting their typical level of interaction with non-disabled peers.
Second, in-building instruction has changed dramatically. Some schools are bringing SWD back into buildings first. If SWD are the only ones in buildings, then they will only be with other SWD, not with non-disabled peers.
Some schools are using cohorts, grouping children together with like needs to avoid mixing of students. You could easily foresee cohorts of students with IEPs.
Schools may also use pods or smaller classes to provide for social distancing. Pre-COVID, schools often clustered SWD into the same general education class to optimize support from a special education teacher who either co-taught the class or provided push-in support. A cluster of students with IEPs within a larger class of non-disabled peers was not an issue for LRE. But if classes are much smaller now, a cluster of SWD may constitute most or all of the class, which changes the LRE equation.
So, schools may be using more restrictive settings than students’ IEPs contemplated.
Distance learning brings its own challenges. Pairing a general ed and a special ed teacher to co-teach a class is a best practice for inclusion during regular school. The two teachers work together to provide both instruction and support. Successfully co-teaching can be hard enough during regular in-person school, and distance learning brings even more challenges. Is it possible to successfully provide push-in support to SWD during synchronous distance learning in a gen ed classroom? SWD may need additional sessions with a special educator to pre-teach or re-teach content. Or they may need small group instruction from a special educator outside of the regular class. These are more restrictive settings.
So what are the takeaways?
As schools and parents work together to meet students’ needs in this new climate, everyone should be mindful of LRE implications. The team should ensure that a student is being educated in the LRE during Covid. At the same time, IEPs should always be individualized and the LRE is different for different students. In some cases, providing supports in a more restrictive setting than usual may be appropriate, dependent on each student’s needs.