Prior to winter break, we wrote about proposed legislation that would further limit the use of physical restraint and time out in Illinois schools. While many expected the bill to pass during the lame duck session earlier this month, it failed to do so. Some opposition continues, but we do expect the bill to be
Education attorney, TFA alum, Paralympian, swimmer, mom.
*Also authored by Mikaila John
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented hardships for all students and school leaders, and it has been particularly challenging for students with disabilities and their IEP teams. Over the last nine months, districts and schools have been trying to figure out the most practical and effective ways to deliver special education and related services in a remote and hybrid learning environment. At the same time, a growing number of parents have brought due process complaints and state complaints to challenge the adequacy of those services. As those cases slowly work their way through the system, we are starting now to see more decisions. The challenges have been largely focused on whether schools are providing the special education and related services identified on the student’s IEP to the greatest extent possible and whether those services meet the student’s needs.
Over the past year, the use of physical restraint and seclusion in schools has come under increased scrutiny. While ISBE issued emergency rules at the end of last November, followed by a series of updates and then final rules in April 2020, state and federal legislators have also been working on proposed laws that would both limit the use of physical restraint and seclusion and require plans to decrease the use of these techniques over time.
The Illinois legislation, Senate Bill 2315, was introduced last November. After input from stakeholders and various revisions, the bill appeared ready to move during veto session. As veto session was canceled, we may see a vote on the bill during the lame duck session in January. On the federal side, the Keeping All Students Safe Act was first introduced in 2009 (at that time called the Preventing Harmful Restraint and Seclusion in Schools Act). The bill has been reintroduced in the years since but never had sufficient support to pass. The bill was recently reintroduced in the House, and President-Elect Biden has voiced his support of the legislation.
Given the increasing possibility that one or both of these bills could become law, now is good time to learn more about their details. Here are the highlights:
While much of the talk about Biden’s education agenda has quickly turned to who he will appoint to replace Betsy DeVos and how he will manage the COVID-19 pandemic, both critical issues for sure, we wanted to highlight Biden’s agenda related to special education. In his campaign, Biden made several important statements about his aims on this topic. Most importantly, he supports full funding of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The law provides for federal funding up to 40% of the average per pupil expenditure, but actual expenditures fall far short of that mark. The federal contribution is currently at about 14-15% or $13 billion. Additionally, his proposals include:
- Increased funds to help teachers earn additional certification in high demand areas like special education. Given the shortage of special education teachers here in Illinois, additional support for teachers seeking this credential could help schools fill open positions and ensure student needs are met.
- Double the number of psychologists, counselors, nurses, social workers, and other health professionals in schools so students have access to mental health care and triple Title I funding. While these goals are not directed specifically to special education, this type of additional support for students could ease the burden on special educators and related services providers.
- Funding for early childhood development experts in community health centers and pediatrician offices with a high percentage of Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program patients. Again, while this is not a special education initiative, it could boost child find and assist families in accessing early intervention services.
OCR recently published a Q&A document providing expectations for compliance with civil rights laws during the pandemic. While OCR is not responsible for enforcing the IDEA, it is responsible for Section 504. Because students with IEPs are generally also protected by Section 504, the new guidance is applicable to students both with Section 504 plans and with IEPs. At the same time, OSEP published a Q&A document providing guidance specifically related to the IDEA. Much of the guidance will sound familiar, but you may find a few surprises.
Continue Reading OCR and OSEP Issue New Q&As related to Special Education in the Current COVID-19 Environment
Now that many of us have been doing some form of remote learning for close to 7 months, we are starting to see hearing officers and state agencies weigh in to resolve complaints related to the appropriateness of remote special education services. While we have not yet seen any Illinois decisions, a review of decisions from other states may shed some light on trends and approaches. Read on for a sample of recent cases and takeaways that may be relevant to your school.
Participation in Remote Learning
In a due process case in Washington, DC, the student had previously been residentially placed but transitioned to a therapeutic day school in January 2020. The student was making some progress until schools were closed due to the pandemic but did not participate in the school’s remote learning program. While the student’s guardian advocated for the student to return to the residential placement, the student, district, and therapeutic school recommended continuing at the day school. Given that a month had passed between the hearing and the decision, the hearing officer directed the IEP team to meet and determine if the student had been participating in the remote program. If so, that would demonstrate that the day school was his least restrictive environment. But if the student had not been participating, a residential placement should be made.
Schools should take and document steps to support student engagement in remote learning. An IEP meeting to develop new approaches may be warranted to avoid a potential need for compensatory services and/or a more restrictive placement.
While only a handful of cases have been reported related to districts’ provision of special education services remotely, we are watching carefully for lessons learned. So far, courts have not required in-person instruction as stay-put, but have indicated the importance of providing remote services tailored to student needs. These early cases reinforce our guidance to make individualized decisions to meet student needs in these extraordinary circumstances. Further, documenting these determinations in an individualized remote learning plan that is incorporated into the student’s IEP can help guard against both procedural and substantive challenges.
Continue Reading Will Hearing Officers and Courts Order In-Person Instruction as Stay-Put?
Schools planning for students to return to campus in person this fall are confronting many significant challenges, including how to support students who may need physical restraint while also maintaining safe practices to minimize the risk of Coronavirus transmission. Schools and IEP teams should start planning to address this issue, such as considering whether additional PPE is needed, whether alternative behavior strategies and interventions could be effective, and whether other changes to the student’s IEP, including placement, may be warranted to safely provide the student an appropriate education.
Additionally, staff need training to understand and comply with the new physical restraint and time out rules issued this spring. While some of the required training can be done remotely, training related to physical restraint must be done in person. ISBE advised in its recently updated Guidance and FAQ document that the required eight hours of annual training for the 2020-2021 school year must be completed by December 31, 2020.
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.
On June 30, 2020, ISBE issued an FAQ document with the purpose of assisting school districts in the transition to in-person instruction. This document, which supplements ISBE’s general guidance on return to in-person instruction during Phase 4, does not include waivers or offer flexibility on existing rules. Rather, it summarizes past and current recommendations in a potpourri of categories including (1) ESY, (2) compensatory services, (3) evaluations, (4) class sizes, (5) homebound services, (6) health and safety factors, (7) IEP meetings/mediations/hearings, (8) delivery of special education instruction and related service, and (9) rules related to private special education schools. An abbreviated version of the guidance, or “cheat sheet” follows. Also check out this post providing additional considerations and analysis related to planning for a return to in-person instruction.
Continue Reading Cheat Sheet for ISBE’s FAQ for Special Education on the Transition to In-Person Instruction