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School is closed because of COVID-19 (coronavirus). So now what?

posted Mar 14, 2020, 2:33 PM by Diane Willcutts   [ updated Mar 22, 2020, 5:12 PM ]
 INFORMATION ADDED TODAY IS IN RED.  

The Governor has ordered that Connecticut public schools end classes by the end of the day Monday, March 16, 2020, and remain closed through at least March 31, 2020.  This will likely be longer. 

What does this mean for students who receive special education services?

So far, we don't know much for sure.  We are still waiting for more guidance from the state.  A letter from SEEK (Special Education Equity for Kids) that makes recommendations to the Connecticut Commissioner of Education is here.  SEEK is Connecticut's first organization of parents, providers, advocates and attorneys, fighting for excellent education for the 70,000 Connecticut students with disabilities.

1.  What do we know for sure?  

Connecticut students are not going to be required to attend school in July.  

The state has waived the requirement that schools be in session for 180 days this school year and has said that districts can close at the usual time.  Districts are being encouraged to set up some form of distance learning.  The time/means of this will likely vary from district to district.  The executive order from the Governor is here.  And of course, the big challenge will be meeting the needs of students with disabilities who cannot benefit from online learning, not to mention all students who do not currently have the technology to engage in computer-based learning.  More to come!

2.  Does the school district need to provide special education services to my child while school is closed?

Welcome to the wild west.

Some districts are telling families yes.  Some districts are telling families no.

The state seems to say yes.

The federal government says "it depends."

I say, "Absolutely, as long as the child can safely benefit from this."  And if we truly can't provide appropriate services while the school building is closed, then we need to make up those services at a later time (e.g., through compensatory education).

So from the state:   "The federal law related to special education and students with disabilities does not specifically address a situation in which school would be closed for an extended period due to exceptional circumstances, such as a pandemic influenza. School districts, however, may not discriminate on the basis of disability when providing educational services, and remain responsible for the free appropriate public education (FAPE) for students."  (Bold added.)  This guidance is here.  That's about the extent of the direction, though; and I expect the state to issue more detailed guidance soon.

On the other hand, the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) issued guidance that says that, "if (a school district) closes its schools to slow or stop the spread of COVID-19 and does not provide any educational services to the general student population, then (the school district) would not be required to provide services to students with disabilities during the same time period."  OSEP's Q&A is here.    

HOWEVER, the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA), which works on behalf of children with disabilities, disagrees and indicates that not providing IEP services would be a violation of IDEA.  Specifically, . . . "the Secretary (of Education) does not have the authority to grant waivers to FAPE under IDEA.  COPAA has grave concern with the (federal) Department of Education's proposition that students with disabilities are not entitled to services during a school closure.  COPAA believes the obligation remains.  COPAA's analysis is here.

OSEP at least acknowledges that, "If (a school district) continues to provide educational opportunities to the general student population during a school closure, the school must ensure that students with disabilities also have equal access to the same opportunities, including the provision of FAPE (a Free and Appropriate Public Education, as provided in the IEP).  The (state department of education, the school district) and schools must ensure that, to the greatest extent possible, each student with a disability can be provided the special education and related services identified in the student's IEP, or a plan developed under Section 504."

OSEP also acknowledges that compensatory education may need to be provided to make up for missed instruction.  

3.  What if my child's school district does not provide special education services or provides insufficient services?  Can I obtain services privately and then ask for reimbursement?

This would make sense, but as I said, it's the wild west, so who knows how this will play out.  To keep the door open for reimbursement, many attorneys have recommended that parents send a "10-day letter" to the district, which states that the existing programming is inappropriate, that parents/guardians are going to obtain appropriate private programming for their child, and that they will request reimbursement from the district.  A 10-day letter must be sent to the district at least 10 BUSINESS DAYS prior to the private services starting.  Note that I am not an attorney, so if you require legal advice, please contact an attorney.  If you need a list of attorneys with whom to communicate, just email me, and I will provide that.

4.  So what about PPTs (IEP meetings) and 504 meetings that were scheduled to occur during school closures?  Are these cancelled?

Most districts have asked to reschedule PPTs and 504 meetings that are to occur in the next two weeks and say they are planning to reschedule once the school buildings re-open, whenever that occurs.  I am asking my families to instead consider requesting that the districts convene these meetings even while the school building is closed--by conference call and/or online web service.  

Why?  

Because realistically, schools may be closed well beyond March 31.  And either way, there may not be enough time to reschedule all the missed PPTs and 504 meetings that need to occur prior to the end of the school year.

Yes, we can meet in the summer, but. . . most of these PPTs truly need to occur prior to the end of the school year.  PPTs are required to consider whether a child needs extended school year services (also known as ESY--special education services that occur during the summer), which requires that we make decisions about ESY before summer starts.  Many students need revisions to their IEPs and 504 plans prior to transition to the next grade.  And many students are due for annual review PPTs this time of year--which are meetings that IDEA requires occur no later than a year from the previous annual review.   

Note that the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) issued guidance related to another disaster, Hurricane Sandy, relative to meeting IDEA's timelines, indicating that we still do need to convene annual reviews within the time frame, even if virtually.  

I understand that many people are saying, "Shouldn't these procedural requirements be waived?  Where are your priorities?"  My priority is making sure that children with disabilities are not forgotten during this crisis.  IDEA was passed at a time when school districts were saying, "We don't know how to meet the needs of children with disabilities, so we're not going to even try."  IDEA requires that we figure it out.  And we are creative, capable people.  We can do this.

Fortunately, there are services like Zoom, Skype, Free Conference Call, FaceTime, etc. that can host meetings while school buildings are closed.  This isn't even close to a perfect solution because some families do not have access to web technology or even reliable phone service.  However, it would be enormously helpful to convene meetings however we can for however many children we can in the interim.  And if I hear about some more creative solutions, I will definitely pass them on!

5.  My child attends an outplacement (private special education school) that is still open.  But my district is closed.  Can my child still go to school?  

I'm not sure how many private schools are still open, but this definitely applied last week.  When the private school was open, some school districts said yes, the child could go to school, and the district still provided transportation.  Some school districts said yes but refused to provide transportation.  And some districts said, no way, your child is not allowed to attend, even if you agree to transport.  Needless to say, I applaud the first group.  Do not get me started on the other two.  To my knowledge, the state has not yet weighed in on this, and I hope they will, helping us to keep the focus on the needs of the child.

6.  What resources exist to help my children while they are at home?
  • For the next two weeks, many Connecticut districts have sent home packets and are providing online practice to "maintain skills."  Many families have been told that this work is optional and will not be graded.  Which is helpful, as much of this work is not truly accessible to children with disabilities or to families who do not have internet service, etc.  My understanding is that many districts are using this initial two-week period to figure out what kind of instruction they might offer if the school closures go on beyond two weeks.
  • Today, the Governor said that there will be a free online education module available to all students, but there were no details provided regarding when this would happen, what this would include, how it would be made accessible to children with disabilities, or how we would ensure that all students have internet access.  More coming as we learn more.
  • For those who do have internet access, many online education companies are providing free subscriptions due to the coronavirus outbreak.  Two comprehensive lists are here and here.  
    • For those looking for a curated list of resources, Amy Langerman, an attorney and special education consultant, has more ideas on her facebook page, here.  Search "education ideas" on her page.
    • Literacy How provides a list of websites that will help the new, accidentally homeschooling family.
    • The Connecticut State Department of Education just published a list of resources for instruction, including those that are subject-specific.
  • Wilson Language Services has attempted to provide guidance regarding continuing Wilson instruction during school closures, here.
  • NESCA (a neuropsychology group in Massachusetts) wrote an article on making the most of COVID-19 school closures, here.
  • Many experts suggest having a schedule for children to structure their day, and one example is below.  This image is also attached to the end of this post, in case people want to print it separately. 

Sample schedule for COVID-19 school closures

  • Many Connecticut districts continue to offer free breakfasts and lunches to their students through "grab and go" sites.  Check the individual school district web sites for information about locations.  Families can also call 211 to get information about where to obtain food.  
Some school "grab & go" resources that have showed up in my in-box are below (and please email me more if you have them):



Confused?  Overwhelmed?  You are not alone.  I'll post more as I learn more.  Stay safe!



Ċ
Diane Willcutts,
Mar 25, 2020, 7:46 AM
ą
Diane Willcutts,
Mar 15, 2020, 7:27 AM
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