After three weeks of being out of school buildings and one week of remote learning, we can all see that the IDEA was not written for pandemics and widespread school closures. While requests for IDEA flexibility have been made, the Department of Education has not indicated whether or when such requests might be granted. Federal and State guidance has been provided but continues to evolve. Educators, administrators, parents, attorneys, states, and the Department of Education are all improvising. In these uncertain times, we recommend schools go back to basics: individualize, communicate, document, and be reasonable. Remember that the FAPE standard is based on what is reasonable under the circumstances.
- Individualize. Individualization is the key to the IDEA and IEPs—this is no less true now. Making individualized determinations about remote learning for every student at the same time is a daunting proposition. But special educators, case managers, related service providers, and special education administrators know their students and their needs and are positioned to make the accommodations and modifications needed for students to access and benefit from continued learning opportunities. Consider using IEP amendments, individual remote learning plans, and other forms to communicate and document how remote learning has been tailored to a student’s needs.
- Communicate. While communication is always key in special education, it is even more critical during remote learning. Parents are in unchartered territory and likely have many questions. Let parents know what to expect from remote learning generally and reach out to collaborate about individualized services and supports the student and family may need. Follow up regularly and make changes as needed. The process of providing special education remotely needs to be flexible and responsive.
Plan ahead as we move to teleconferences and videoconferences as our main communication tools. Provide parents and staff access to any documents that will be reviewed: electronically, through mail, or, in exceptional cases, through packet pick-up. Consider confidentiality issues that may arise when team members are meeting at home; encourage everyone involved to maximize privacy, whether by finding a private place to work, using headphones, or both.
- Document. Documentation, like communication, is always a fundamental part of special education, but it is even more so now. Encourage team members to put systems in place to collect and organize information about services and accommodations provided, student engagement and performance, and parent communication. Documentation now will facilitate the transition back to brick-and-mortar instruction and will be critical should remote learning services be challenged later.
- Be Reasonable. Remote learning is going to be different from learning in school; students, parents, and educators need to set reasonable expectations and support each other. The first try will not be perfect, but with continued efforts and progress, we will get through this.
Notice that absolute compliance is not on our list. IDEA includes detailed procedures to safeguard student and parent rights. In some cases, like the unprecedented ones we are facing now, absolute compliance with the IDEA is not feasible. What is required is to focus of reasonable ways to individualize to meet student needs, communicate with parents to enable their participation, and document services and decisions. And remember that our team is here to support you as you navigate the specifics of providing remote special education.