Support for Special Education Services in a Pandemic

By: Sharon Pike, Parent Liaison, with Brad Dembs, J.D., Matt Cohen & Associates

Easterseals DuPage & Fox Valley clinicians and staff provide information, education and support that address the concerns and stressors which may accompany having a child with a developmental delay or disability.  As a parent liaison at Easterseals, a highly trained parent of a child with a disability, we provide caregivers support from the unique perspective of someone “who has been there.” To provide more virtual support, we are connecting our favorite professionals to you through free webinars that answer your needs during this unique time.

Towards the end of the summer, we hosted a live Q&A event where caregiver’s asked questions to prepare for the complex upcoming school year with COVID-19 and how to best advocate for their children’s unique needs.

Now that school has been in session, join us for Part 2 on October 1 at 5:30 PM. Register for the Special Education: Remote, Hybrid & In-School Learning Check-In by clicking here.

Discussions was led by Brad Dembs, J.D., an Attorney with Matt Cohen and Associates, a law firm who specializes on special education, disability rights, and school-related issues. The following is paraphrased from the original discussion to provide insight to any who missed.

In general, caregivers for children who have an IEP are an essential part of their child’s education, now more than ever.

Q1: With so much conflicting information on education plans, and things changing so often, how can parents actually plan, or prioritize the most important parts of a child’s education right now?

The first step in answering this question would be to determine what’s the most essential part of your child’s educational goals. Ask yourself questions such as “What skills is my child learning and developing,” “Where was my child’s progress when remote learning started,” “Where did my child’s goals on their IEP expect them to be by now,” and “Has my child’s learning progressed, failed to progress, or regressed since remote learning started?” Asking yourself these questions can help clue you into what aspects of learning are most important to focus on. 

For many families, the most critical areas to prioritize are the development of threshold skills. For example, learning to read is a crucial threshold skill. Reading is used in all subjects and is one of the key fundamental building blocks of educational learning. If reading is something your child struggles with, that is something to prioritize when talking to your child’s teacher and about your child’s needs. Another essential threshold skill to focus on could include social skill development. It depends on your child and their disability, but in general, it’s helpful to think about the question “What does my child need now to take them to the next step” when thinking about educational goals to prioritize. 

Therapy Minutes & IEP

Q1: What are our rights in regards to e-learning and therapy minutes for remote learning?

A: As a parent, your rights have not changed. You are entitled to the same minutes that are in your child’s IEP. However, the reality is that school districts don’t have the same capacity to provide all those minutes or the ability to offer them in the same way they did in the past. Because of this, you must be flexible with your expectations even though your rights have not changed.

Q2: What should I expect for IEP minutes for OT & PT when a child usually received individual treatment. In the Spring, I was emailed a lesson, no Zoom tele-therapy offered. Is this correct?

A: No, and especially no, if there was not a discussion about it. This is what we would call a unilateral change outside the IEP process and is inappropriate. I would recommend putting a request in writing about the minutes that are needed and why those minutes are required. It always helps to have things in writing and to have additional support for what you’re requesting. If your child sees a private ST, PT, OT or mental health therapist and those clinicians provide a letter attesting to your child’s needs; it further validates your school district request. 

Service Minutes & Remote Learning

Unfortunately, not every school district will fulfill every obligation the way it is supposed to, and you may have to advocate for those services with methods discussed previously. Being flexible with your expectations is necessary as the guidance received from the State Board of Education is somewhat inconsistent and much is dependent on available funding and resources at each school district.

If you have any concerns about your child’s services, it is essential to request a meeting with your district and express your concerns. Start with what’s in the IEP and let them know what you have determined as a team for your child needs going forward. 

Again, make the process as collaborative as possible, be communicative in writing about what you’re looking for with your school district. If possible, provide documentation about why the request is essential and needed (more below and in resources). If you or another caregiver are home when your child receives remote learning, you have more insight because you have more opportunities to see what’s going on in your child’s education and see if what’s written in the IEP is being provided.

Q1: How do I communicate concerns with regression and remote learning?

A: Caregivers need to gather as much data as they can about how their child is performing. Because schools see their children less in remote learning, it’s essential for parents to be that resource and tell their child’s school what they can and can’t do. If remote learning is becoming impossible for your child, it is a tough position to be in.

In this situation, we recommend you talk to your school about having a teacher or service provider come to the home and provide service at a responsible distance. The accommodation is unfortunately unlikely, but it never hurts to ask. The end decision is up to the individual school district’s discretion. If you’re in a position where your school denies at-home accommodations, keep track of your child’s regression to be ready to advocate for more intensive services to make up for the regression when more in-person learning and services are available. 

This is called compensatory education, which refers to services that are needed above what has been provided to make progress that should have been made without a gap of service in the first place. This could include extra therapy minutes or more intensive instruction.

A Return to School

Q1: Some disabilities make it difficult to comply with COVID precautions, how can we navigate these to ensure the safety of all children but continue our child’s education?

A: This would need to be taken on a case by case basis depending on what the situation is. The Board of Education and Department of Public Health’s guidance is relatively general, and the end discretion is left up to the school district. In the case of masks, if a child cannot wear a mask, a face shield may be recommended as a reasonable substitute. Still, the child would have to practice social distancing as rigidly as possible because there is less protection with a face shield than a facemask. Not every school will allow children to wear face shields because it could be considered a significant alteration of their safety precautions. Some children who cannot wear a facemask may also not be able to wear a face shield. In other more extreme cases, a child who cannot comply with school safety procedures such as wearing a mask may be asked to remain in remote learning even when other children go back to school. 

Q2: How should students with disabilities who require one-to-one paraprofessionals be accommodated in a plan that emphasizes 6 feet of social distancing?

A: This may be a scenario where the support that’s written in the IEP may have to be changed due to practical considerations. The child’s individual needs need to be assessed alongside safety practices. This would depend on whether the child can attend school without the help of a paraprofessional. If they cannot, and it’s still possible to have safety protection in place via wearing a mask, it may be appropriate to have an aide closer than 6 feet. Schools should be training and updating their staff on safety procedures, particularly related to individual students with disabilities. Individual accommodations will need to considered by staff to make it possible for students with disabilities to attend safely. 

Q3: Can I request certain precautions to be taken if my child goes back to school in the Fall? My child likes to lick and put her fingers/hands in her mouth.

A: You have the right to request accommodations for safety. You should discuss this with your district and any outside providers your working with as they can help you determine what can be done to accommodate any safety issues or concerns. This is a challenging example because accommodations of gloves or other hand protection could quickly become contaminated as easily as bare hands. This is a case where a collaborative effort would need to be reached between your education provider and any other outside clinicians. If no attempts work, the school should be willing to accommodate and continue to provide remote learning. 

Resources

Matt Cohen & Associates provide a number of resources that can help document needs and open communication with your child’s education providers. See the links below.

This is a big topic that has many variables for each child’s needs and school district. For more information, there are recorded presentations on our website that go into detail at: https://www.mattcohenandassociates.com/presentations/

Parent Liaisons at Easterseals DuPage & Fox Valley have firsthand experience with IEP meetings and are available to answer questions or provide resources on the topic. For more information, visit: https://www.easterseals.com/dfv/explore-resources/for-caregivers/iep-help.html.

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