A girl with down syndrome and her mother are sitting at home at a table with an open book in front of them.

4 Points about Delivering Special Education Instruction

This guidance grounded in the law will help you address the needs of students with disabilities during the coronavirus pandemic.

Topics: Equity and Diversity, Special Education

A few weeks ago, like many, our household received notification that school would be moving to remote learning because of the coronavirus pandemic. Soon after, my wife (a math specialist teacher in a public elementary school) immediately began collaborating with colleagues about how to meet student needs. Because we (like you!) are all working from home, I couldn’t help overhear some of the conversations they were having through videoconferencing and the like.

As they explored how they were going to meet the needs of their students, I never heard: “We can’t do that” or “This will never work.”

Quite the contrary. Instead, I heard: “We can do it this way” or “We can try this.” Their conversations were inspiring and drew from years of their collective expertise.

I am guessing the conversations you and your staff were having (and continue to have) also reflect this his “all-hands on deck” effort to tailor instruction to all students including—and especially—those with disabilities.

The vignette I share underscores a central thread of this column intended to give you some general guidance grounded in the law and addressing the needs of students with disabilities in the current time. It is this: Continue to work with your staff, parents, and students to problem-solve and innovate to meet the demands of your students with disabilities who operate under Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). This is in the best interests of your students, allows your staff to tap their professional expertise, and might reduce risk exposure to legal issues that might arise once the proverbial dust settles.

1: Apply Your Best Professional Judgment

Administrators and educators should be applying their best professional judgment and collaborating in an earnest and dedicated effort to address the individual learning needs of their students.

This is my first (and hopefully last) pandemic. The comment hints with sarcasm, but the point highlights this: You don’t have experience guiding students and educators through a situation like this.

But you (and your staff) have experience in innovating and problem-solving and a deep knowledge of your individual students’ needs that, together, can guide your staff through this situation. It might not be perfect, but the fact is that educators possess the skills needed for this moment to best meet the individual and changing needs of their students. Do the best you can do with what you have.

How does this relate to delivering special education obligations? Federal and state guidance recognize the unique challenges of the moment and appear to recognize that satisfying special education demands must be put in the current context.

Numerous education agency documents are scattered with conditional phrases that encourage schools to ensure compliance with special education requirements “to the greatest extent possible” and “to the most appropriate extent possible.” These phrases recognize the limitations of the current moment but also require educators to “step-up” and adapt as much as practicable.
This doesn’t translate into an excuse to simply ignore particular needs of a student because of limitations. Just the opposite: It means employing methods or ideas as it relates to trying to meet demands of particular students and their IEPs.

2: Rely on Central Office Personnel

Lean heavily on your central office personnel, including superintendents and special education administrators, to filter guidance to you and your staff. Push them to do so, if you feel they are not adequately tracking rapidly changing regulatory and legal developments at the federal and state level.

On March 16, 2020, the U.S. Department of Education issued a Questions and Answers Guidance Document on servicing students with disabilities during the coronavirus outbreak. A few days later, they issued a Supplemental Fact Sheet intended to clarify an apparent “misunderstanding” going around among “some educators” that federal disability law prohibited the delivery of distance education (not true).

Congress’ CARES Act provided opportunities for the use of federal funding for purposes of technology upgrades that would support remote learning. Similarly, state legislatures have amended their education statutes, including some related to the delivery of special education. In the weeks ahead, state legislatures will pass many laws related to education and, likely, special education.

Your district likely has administrators (perhaps in central office) who should track, distill, and package this ever-changing guidance into actionable information that you can share with your staff to use in the interests of kids, especially those who require special education. If they are not, seek out those professional networks (informal and formal) that can.

3: Minimize Concerns about Compensatory Education

Try to minimize concerns you and your staff might have about compensatory education or being sued if there are deviations from the IEP because of the current pandemic. Fixating too much on it only subtracts from your energy to address the needs of your students with disabilities in the present, pressing moment.
Special education raises the anxiety of many because it is so law-driven. Ever-present is a concern that a lawsuit is lurking around the corner. A pandemic only adds to this pre-existing level of anxiety, especially as it relates to claims to compensate services under an IEP that might have not been delivered during remote learning.

But compensatory education is not a given. Remember that a failure to implement an IEP, for example, generally requires that the district “materially failed” to do so. It just might be that your students make progress, despite the circumstances. It’s too early to know answers to these questions.

4: Look forward a Bit

As the saying goes, “necessity is the mother of invention.” You and your staff are developing some ingenious individualized education solutions that might make Silicon Valley’s “education entrepreneurs” green with envy.

While looking ahead is not primary right now, to the extent possible, take note if you can see things sparking that might work in the future (whatever that holds). Keep a running file, notebook, or some record of the innovative and transformative approaches to teaching and learning related to instruction for students with disabilities and your students in general.

Educators and schools have traditionally been a source of stability, dedication, and love in our communities. There has not been a time in recent history more than now when our children need those qualities and your professionalism to meet the moment.

Mark Paige is an associate professor in public policy at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. He is a former school law attorney and represented school districts in all aspects of education law.