ISBE and IDPH recently released their guidance related to Starting the 2020-21 School Year. The guidance addresses a broad range of topics, including some suggestions related to special education. The following week ISBE issued an FAQ targeting special education issues.  While many details remain to be worked out at the local level, here are our key takeaways related to placing a high priority on returning students with disabilities to in-person instruction, addressing the needs of medically fragile students, continued remote learning versus homebound instruction, face coverings, and the many demands and challenges facing IEP teams.

First, ISBE states that “high priority should be placed on providing in-person instruction for students with IEPs [and] 504 plans.” Additionally, “these students should be in attendance in-person daily during Blended Remote Learning Days.” Developing a plan to manage the learning and safety needs of an entire school and entire district, cooperative, or network is a major undertaking that includes balancing many competing demands. Given the additional needs of students with IEPs and 504 plans, as well as their additional legal protections (and the corresponding risks to not providing adequate services), prioritizing these students for in-person instruction is prudent.

With respect to students who are medically fragile or are at higher risk of severe illness, the guidance recommends advance planning, including collaboration with parents and, as appropriate (and when consented to by parents), medical providers. For these students, the guidance suggests consideration of additional supports or precautions that the student may need in order to attend school as well as consideration of whether the student should continue with remote learning or receive homebound instruction rather than attending school in-person. For a student with a medical condition preventing them from attending school, what is the difference between remote learning and homebound instruction? A few significant differences are outlined below.

Homebound Instruction Remote Learning
Initiation The student must have a certification from a physician with specified information. Requirements are not set out by law or regulation. The district may develop a procedure for the initiation of remote learning related to student medical needs.
Determination Instruction must begin within 5 school days of receipt of the physician’s statement, meaning the parent and physician make the determination of whether a student receives homebound instruction. A decision framework is not set out by law or regulation. The district may develop a procedure to evaluate and decide requests for continued remote learning, including utilizing administration, the IEP team, the parent and physician, or some combination or variation thereof.
Services Students receive at least 5 hours of direct instruction per week, generally in person unless medically contraindicated. At two hours must be “direct instruction,” meaning interacting with the teacher in person or via video or telephone conference. Students receive at least 5 hours of instruction per day, though all of it may be remote. The time includes synchronous instruction via video conference, recorded videos, independent or small-group assignments and projects, computer-based instruction and skill practice, and other learning activities.

If students will be returning to the school building, districts should consider how to manage requests for continued remote learning based on student medical needs.

While much of the guidance is stated in terms of recommendations, one requirement is that everyone 2 years old and older must wear a face covering while in a school building unless the person has difficulty breathing or is incapacitated. As we explained in our 40 Answers to Your Questions: With respect to students whose behavior or capacities may limit their ability to tolerate wearing a face covering, the guidance explicitly says schools can consider the use of a face shield instead. The guidance does not directly address what should be done if a student cannot tolerate either a traditional face covering or a face shield. ISBE’s June 30, 2020 update to its FAQ encourages schools to review information such as a physician’s note documenting the medical contraindication for any individual who is not able to wear a face covering. The guidance suggests that schools can consider that inability in deciding whether to provide in-person instruction to such students. We recommend that you work closely with your legal counsel when making any decisions to exclude students from in-person instruction based on this or other factors. We also recommend that districts develop a procedure to manage requests for exemptions from the face-covering requirement.

Finally, let’s all give each other some grace. As we have discussed since the spring, the IDEA was not written for a pandemic – not for school closures and not for an attempt to return to school while mitigating the continuing risk of illness. The demands on IEP teams as the school year approaches and begins will be significant, including

  • Academic: Assess student learning; make up missed concepts; keep moving with new concepts to avoid falling further behind.
  • Social, emotional, and behavioral: Assess and address the differing needs students will present with as they cope with the events of the spring and summer and adjust to new routines in the fall.
  • Evaluations: Catch up on a back-log of assessments that could not be completed remotely; assess the need for and conduct new evaluations for students who are presenting with new needs.
  • IEP review: Plan to address student medical needs; determine the need for IEP amendments or modifications based on changed student needs and the changed learning environment.
  • Dispute resolution: Respond to due process requests and State complaints.

In tackling this challenge: be patient and persistent, these efforts will be ongoing; collaborate with and learn from each other; communicate with parents and other stakeholders, keeping people informed will calm concerns and maintain positive relationships; and, of course, document your efforts. Reach out to the Franczek special education team with questions and for support.