Stronger Together: Special EducationPart of Stronger Together: A Guidebook for the Safe Reopening of California's Public Schools. Created through the Reopening Schools Task Force that fostered a collaborative process for educators and stakeholders to lend their important voices.
As LEAs make plans to reopen school sites, they are presented with a unique opportunity—to ensure students with disabilities and other special populations are fully integrated into every aspect of preparation and participation, and to ensure the needs of all students are addressed and the decision benefits all students, staff, and families. As Tucker and Kruse wrote:
We must prepare in a way that is flexible enough to respond to an uncertain future under COVID-19, yet robust enough to ensure that all students—including students with disabilities—have an equal opportunity to succeed over the long term. Doing so can help ensure that equity is built into the foundation of a new era of education. 1
Creating A Universally Designed, Inclusive Plan for Reopening That Plans for the Needs of Diverse Learners and Students with Exceptional Needs
Seize the opportunity to develop an integrated plan for reopening that addresses the needs of students with disabilities from the build. While this is not an exhaustive list, the Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA) Administrators of California surveyed their membership and provided the following areas to consider as LEAs build their plans to return to school sites.
Areas Identified Specific to Students with Disabilities (SWD)
The following areas have been identified as overarching areas of concern that should be addressed in reopening planning.
Health and Safety
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)/Essential Protective Gear (EPG)
- Consider the differing requirements of PPE/EPG for the differing populations of students with disabilities (i.e., for those requiring medical procedures, toileting, lifting and mobility assistance).
- Consider how the LEA will address students with disabilities who refuse or are not able to wear masks.
Planning for Students who are Medically Fragile and/or Immune Compromised
- Clearly define how staff can honor physical distancing recommendations, yet meet student medical, personal, or support needs.
- Determine how adequate space and facilities will be utilized to maintain health and safety of students and staff, especially when tending to individual student medical or personal needs.
- Build in flexibilities to keep students connected and included in the class and school community regardless of how much physical time they are able to attend school. Ensure the ability to quickly pivot to attending class virtually in order to retain some regular connection to teacher and peers.
- Determine any special or unique needs for students with disabilities
related to planned district or schoolwide procedures and protocols
related to the following:
- Daily health screening and temperature checks
- Restroom use as well as diapering and toileting
- Paths of travel
- Use of campuses for recess or recreational activities
- Cleaning and disinfecting
- Establish any necessary flexibilities for specific students-with-disabilities populations such as preschool-age, students with extensive support needs, behavioral challenges, etc.
- Establish flexibilities and plan for how to implement physical distancing given lack of space and facility limitations, particularly for children who will struggle with maintaining physical distancing.
- Address potential issues from physical distancing rules that could result in unintended segregation of students on campuses away from peers without disabilities.
- Plan for maintaining access to peers without disabilities and ensure that students remain in the least restrictive environment.
- Determine how the LEA will provide related services in instructional models while staying physically distant.
- Discuss how LEA staff and providers will conduct assessments while practicing physical distancing.
Ensuring a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
- Work with each family and student to determine what FAPE looks like for each student and family during COVID-19. It may be different than the individualized education program (IEP) developed pre-COVID-19.
- Use the LEA model(s) for all students as the basis for establishing FAPE.
- Ensure children with disabilities are included in all offerings of school education models by using the IEP process to customize educational opportunities and provide supports when necessary.
- Use annual IEP to plan for traditional school year and while not required, it is suggested LEAs include distance learning plans or addendums to address distance learning needs during immediate or future school site closures.
Utilizing the IEP and Consideration of Family Needs
Utilize and Update Individualized Education Programs (IEPs)
In the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) and CDE provided guidance that IEP amendments were not necessarily required for the immediate change to distance learning. However, the duration and overarching changes to education delivery in many cases will warrant changes to students’ IEPs. This ensures that the IEPs account for the local delivery of education as school sites reopen, including contingencies for pivoting in and out of distance learning. In accordance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), each student with a disability has unique needs and it is the purpose of the education system to ensure every student has access to their grade-level standards and makes progress in their education. The IEP is the roadmap for each student with a disability, and in these challenging and evolving times including COVID-19 restrictions, it is critical that the IEP team meets and works with the family to jointly determine what is working for each student in distance learning as well as what accommodations and modality of learning allows the greatest access.
Communicate Openly and Often with Families
Do not underestimate the need to initiate and have ongoing communication with families. Even for those families who switched apprehensively to distance learning, re-engaging and reaching out often and sometimes through multiple avenues is critical to ensure connectedness and support, particularly for families who may be in crisis.
Collaborative, ongoing discussion about an appropriate path forward once school sites reopen for each student, given each student’s unique needs and circumstances, is critical to ensuring equitable access and offering of FAPE for students with disabilities. We know every family situation and feeling about the current pandemic are as unique as the needs of the children. Honoring the fears, challenges, diversities, and preferences of families is critical to the success of students with disabilities in reopening our schools.
1 Eric Tucker and Lindsay Kruse, 2020, “Preparing to Reopen: Six Principles That Put Equity at the Core,” Getting Smart. https://www.gettingsmart.com/2020/05/preparing-to-reopen-six-principles-that-put-equity-at-the-core/.