Equitable special education through distance learning
Helpful FAQs and support resources for teachers and paras

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Updated April 29, 2020

As distance learning becomes our new reality, public education is presented with new challenges. Many special education service providers are feeling overwhelmed and concerned as they navigate a new educational landscape to serve a population that is vulnerable and at times fragile. The current crisis, along with its many challenges, gives us the opportunity to find new ways to continue fighting for our students’ right to a Free, Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).

This information is designed to help educators find answers to common legal questions and to provide ideas in the management and creation of distance learning approaches. The CFT hopes this brings some uniformity to the vast amount of information that has been put forth by various advocacy groups, districts, state and federal agencies. Please refer back to this page for updates.

Disclaimer: This serves as an informational guide only. It is not intended to be used as a substitute for legal advice. Specific questions about your contractual or legal rights should be directed to your local union or CFT.

General questions and concerns

A. What does it mean to provide special education services through a distance learning model?

Distance learning will look different depending on the age, disability, and specific needs of each student.

There are many considerations when creating a successful distance learning plan. The California Department of Education (CDE) has a resource page that can help you think through this process. This page also provides a continuum of options to meet the needs of all the students you serve. You can find that resource page here: Distance Learning – Health Services & School Nursing (CDE)

First, all students must have access to the educational materials they need to succeed. Most online platforms allow educators to record lessons and provide access to files. Educators can also establish, in collaboration with district leadership and administrators, plans to safely distribute books and booklets to students and families. For more ideas, visit the CDE resource page in the link above.

Second, students and families will need some form of frequent communication with educators. Paraprofessionals and teacher aides can be a tremendous help in this area. Paraprofessionals will often have pre-established relationships with families and can make phone calls and provide real time assistance. For the many ways our paraprofessionals and can help create equity and effective communication see our Tips for paraprofessionals section.

Remember, communication and interaction may look different for different students. One student may respond to emails and ignore phone calls, while another may do better with text messaging. This is no different from how we tailor communication patterns in the classroom. Keep all of this in mind as you develop and adjust communication plans.

B. What should my priority be in developing distance learning plans for my students with special needs?

Equity must be at the center of all distance learning plans. Remember, access is not the same as equity. Educators must take proactive measures to prevent the exacerbation of known educational inequities. Remember, there is not simply one type of distance education. Educators will approach distance learning in manners best tailored for the population of students they serve. Educators should see this as an opportunity to explore new ways to meet the individual needs of all students. Not all platforms or technologies will work for all students.

C. What other logistical issues should guide educator planning?

Educators should build collaboration strategies to engage families/guardians and educators working outside special education. Always look to administrators for guidance. Educators should ask for clarification and document directions and guidance coming from leadership. This moment calls for labor-management as well as district-, state-, and nationwide peer collaboration. Online communication provides unique ways to share resources and strategies.

D. How can paraprofessionals be of special assistance during this time?

Paraprofessionals will often have pre-established relationships with families and can make phone calls and provide real time assistance. For the many ways our paraprofessionals and education support professionals can help create equity and effective communication see our list below. 

Guidance for paraprofessionals

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Paraprofessionals are essential in meeting the needs of our students, and that remains true within the context of distance learning. Students are going through a tremendous shift in their lives, and having interaction with those with whom they are most familiar can create a sense of comfort and connection.

Paraprofessionals should be consulted regarding their ideas for student learning (especially for students with special education services). They often know more about student communication styles and student home life than other staff and can help inform them of circumstances they may not be aware of. Here is a list of suggestions on how paraprofessional might support students:

  • Organize student work to send home.
  • Plan basic movement activities that can be done at home for a break. Create videos to demonstrate.
  • Work with teachers to compile a list of online resources that can be sent home to parents in categories to supplement activities (music, reading, movement) for parents needing additional supports.
  • Write specific directions for the art projects (aligned with standards) developed by the teacher. Create a finished product and take a picture.
  • Assist with uploading documents to an online platform, if trained to do so.
  • Read and record books that will be utilized for courses.
  • Read aloud and record any other content that will be used by teachers (tests, worksheets).
  • Find a daily inspiration, quote or video to include in correspondence.
  • Work with the mental health team to provide extra supports and outreach to high-need students.
  • Create fun activity packets that support the learning standards (word searches, crossword puzzles, math sheets).
  • Create story time videos.
  • Write notes to be sent home to students so they remember we care and are thinking of them.
  • Schedule online meet and greets for check-ins in coordination with the teacher, and support learning if there are questions.
  • Spend time learning the technology your school staff is using, help others learn as needed.
  • Find supports for students to use technology or help with any technology issues if familiar.
  • Continue to collaborate on modifying materials/assignments. 
  • Check in on families to see how distance learning is going and to see if there are any additional resources needed.

Guidance on checking in with families

In many of our districts, paraprofessionals are asked to “check in” with families. The following are some guidelines shared by one of our CFT locals that may provide some clarity on this task. 

A check-in is:

  • An opportunity to connect with students regularly (once or twice a week if needed).
  • A short phone call (you can use *67 to block your number).
  • An opportunity to monitor students’ stress with schoolwork and how overwhelmed they may feel during distance learning.
  • A chance to verify how they are keeping up with their schoolwork.
  • A chance to ensure they know how to access and are able to turn in assignments.
  • An opportunity for them to ask questions about an assignment or how to log onto a learning platform (ie. Khan Academy or Google Classroom).
  • An opportunity to deliver curriculum accommodations we would typically deliver in the classroom.

If a check-in call becomes a longer conversation with a parent because….

  • They have questions or concerns regarding their students IEP, or
  • They share concerns around their student’s mental health or social-emotional state, or
  • They have concerns regarding the specific assignments being given by a teacher, then…
    • Remind them you are just calling to check in their student’s progress with assignments.
    • Direct them to the student’s case manager via email (do not provide personal cell numbers).
    • Let their case manager know as soon as you can.

Quick tips about distance learning

It is OK to feel overwhelmed by the challenges of distance learning, particularly in a field that depends as much on relationships as special education. Here are some quick reminders for the moments that seem overwhelming:

  • Prioritize equity. Remember simply granting access is not the same thing as providing an equitable education.
  • Redefine success. Both students and educators need time to adjust to distance learning.
  • Avoid the urge to try and master everything. Learn the tools that are best for your students. Trying to be a master of all platforms will be overwhelming for you and your students.
  • Set and maintain boundaries. Distance learning models blur the boundaries between home life and work life. Inform students when you will be available and maintain that schedule for your own wellbeing.
  • Remember, assistive technologies do not have to be electronic. Assistive technologies range from simple to high-tech, advanced options.
  • Do not force a platform on all students. You should allow the needs of a student and their new learning environment define what tools to use, not the reverse. Start with the IEP and the student. Starting from a platform and forcing it on all students will lead to more problems than solutions.
  • Do not let cost be prohibitive. There are certainly cost limitations on what your district may be able to provide on its own, but many state and federal programs help students and families gain access to high-tech tools.
  • Remember that access is an equity issue. Something as simple as the speed of an internet connection will influence how services are provided. Ask students and parents/guardians what they need to be successful.
  • Take the time to onboard students and families. Educators will likely spend the first few weeks helping students learn how to learn online. Remember this is new for most everyone.
  • You do not need to be perfect. It is ok to take this process slow. Even advanced online teachers have bad days. Students may lose internet access for a day. A student may buy new technology, or they may be distracted by a sibling or a sick family member. Flexibility and patience will be important tools for success.

Equity concerns and distance learning plans

Equity in education was already elusive, but the current global pandemic further complicates the lives of many students. Students receiving special education services and students on a 504 plan face unique challenges. Please report all equity concerns—such as barriers in using a particular platform or disparate impacts of a particular policy on students who are low income or who lack parental support—to your administration and your local union representatives, and be proactive in proposing solutions. A concern that you are observing is probably occurring with many students in your district. You can find a list of suggested questions to ask your LEA about distance learning here.

Questions to ask when discussing distance learning with your LEA

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The federal government has provided guidance on implementing IDEA during this time of CRISIS, which generally states to continue providing services. How those services change during distance learning is left to state and local decision-making. The following are some questions to consider raising with Local Educational Agencies and State Educational Agencies in order to gain clarity on implementation:

  1. How will you use the additional funding provided in the COVID-19 relief bills to address the needs of children with IEPs?
    – What next steps do you have to implement this
    – What is the timeline
    – What do Local Educational Agencies and schools need to do in order to prepare and be best positioned to leverage such additional funding and supports?
  2. How are you directing special education educators and specialists to deploy distance learning? Do you have your plan in writing?
  3. What guidance will you provide regarding best in-class practices during this distance learning time period?
  4. What resources and training will you provide so that best in-class practices are actually possible to implement?
  5. Specific to technology resources, how are you giving children and educators access to the technology (i.e. devices) and digital connectivity (i.e. mobile hotspots) they need in order to access or provide digital learning and support services while staying in compliance with social distancing and stay-at-home orders?
  6. What supports are in place for parents who are not technologically savvy?
  7. How are parents who do not speak English being supported?
  8. What are the procedures and protocols for communicating with parents of students with IEPs to provide updates on services and supports during distance learning?
  9. In regards to legal timelines for initial assessments, triennials and annual IEPs, what are LEAs doing to address difficulties in keeping those timelines?
  10. How are services delivered documented?
  11. What are LEAs doing to prevent teacher burnout due to the increasing demands of distance learning, student contact, time spent on devices and not ideal working situations e.g. having kids to teach, lack of daycare for infant/toddlers, elder parents, disabled family members in household while providing distance learning?

Due process and legal questions

In the interest of providing targeted guidance on certain legal topics, we have taken excerpts from various Federal and CDE publications related to special education obligations, with some minor changes in formatting and wording for clarity.

A. How do we determine what is a FAPE for students with disabilities with an individualized education program (IEP) or Section 504 plan?

The Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), the Office for Civil Rights (OCR), and the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) have provided guidance on what constitutes FAPE for students with disabilities on an IEP or a Section 504 plan. As provided in the OCR Fact Sheet and the OCR/OSERS Supplemental Fact Sheet, the provision of FAPE and providing equal access to the general education instruction can occur through distance learning. Those documents provide examples of ways to provide distance learning. This includes direct instruction, related services and disability-related modifications. In determining how to provide FAPE, an individualized determination must occur with parental participation.

The CDE’s website provides special education guidance for COVID-19. It is available here: Special Education Guidance for COVID-19 – Health Services & School Nursing. It also encourages LEAs to communicate with parents about how they will serve students while safer-at-home orders are in effect.

The U.S. Department of Education, in its supplemental fact sheet entitled “Addressing the Risk of COVID-19 in Preschool, Elementary, and Secondary Schools While Servicing Children with Disabilities,” stated, “The Department encourages parents, educators, and administrators to collaborate creatively to continue to meet the needs of students with disabilities.” That fact sheet can be found here: IDEA Supplemental Fact Sheet.

That document also provides, “School districts must provide a [FAPE] consistent with the need to protect the health and safety of students with disabilities and those individuals providing education, specialized instruction, and related services to these students. In this unique and ever-changing environment, OCR, and OSERS recognize that these exceptional circumstances may affect how all educational and related services and supports are provided, and the [U.S. Department of Education] will offer flexibility where possible. However, school districts must remember that the provision of FAPE may include, as appropriate, special education and related services provided through distance instruction virtually, online, or telephonically. Where technology itself imposes a barrier to access or where educational materials simply are not available in an accessible format, educators may still meet their legal obligations by providing children with disabilities equally effective alternate access to the curriculum or services provided to other students.”

B. Is daily interaction with educators required for students with IEPs, and how are direct service minutes determined?

The CDE defines distance learning as “instruction in which the student and instructor are in different locations,” but does not appear to require educators to interact daily with students with IEPs. The amount of daily interaction with service providers will be determined by the special education and related services the student is required to receive via the student’s IEP.

C. Do I need to amend each student’s IEP to address distance learning?

The CDE does not require amendments to each student’s IEP to address distance learning. The CDE’s guidance states:

In response to the Governor’s Executive Order, schools are physically closed, and local educational agencies (LEAs) are to provide educational services through alternative options such as distance learning. Under this unique circumstance, in the CDE’s view it is not necessary for an LEA to convene an IEP team meeting, or propose an IEP amendment without a team meeting, for every student, solely for the purpose of discussing the need to provide services away from school, because that change must necessarily occur due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Similarly, in the CDE’s view, it is not necessary for an LEA to obtain the parent’s written consent to provide previously agreed-upon services, away from school. The IEP that was in effect at the time of physical school closure remains in effect, and LEAs should, to the greatest extent possible, continue to provide the services called for in those IEPs in alternative ways. 

According to the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) Office of Special Education Program’s (OSEP) March 21, 2020 guidance, “[T]these exceptional circumstances may affect how all educational and related services and supports are provided …the provision of [free and appropriate public education (FAPE)] may include, as appropriate, special education and related services provided through distance instruction provided virtually, online, or telephonically… schools may not be able to provide all services in the same manner that they are typically provided… federal disability law allows for flexibility in determining how to meet the individual needs of students with disabilities. The determination of how FAPE is to be provided may need to be different in this time of unprecedented national emergency.” To review OSEP’s March 21, 2020 guidance titled “Supplemental Fact Sheet Addressing the Risk of COVID-19 in Preschool, Elementary and Secondary Schools While Serving Children with Disabilities”, visit the USDOE website.

However, there may be instances when amending the IEP to reflect the change to distance learning might be necessary and/or appropriate. LEAs may convene an IEP team meeting, or propose an IEP amendment without a team meeting, particularly where it is deemed necessary to address unique circumstances related to alternative service delivery. (See 20 USC 1414 (d)(4)(A); 20 USC 1414 (d)(3)(D); 34 C.F.R. § 300.324.) Parents too may request an IEP meeting or propose an IEP amendment, pursuant to Education Code § 56343, subdivision (c). Some LEAs and parents have agreed to amend the IEP by incorporating a distance learning plan outlining the special education and related services being provided to the student during the temporary, emergency situation created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

At this time, LEAs should necessarily be focused on serving each and every student. OSEP’s March 21, 2020 guidance clarifies that “ensuring compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act… should not prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction.” The CDE recognizes that due to the emergency situation created by the COVID-19 pandemic, it will take time for LEAs to determine their continuum of services during school site closures and provide information to parents and students about the services being offered. As such, communication and collaboration are vital. It is recommended that LEAs maintain regular communication with parents of students with disabilities about their efforts to transition to distance learning, plans to ensure access for all students, and to identify and address any immediate support needs when feasible.

D. Do I need to have each student’s parent or guardian sign the prior written notice (PWN) document describing amendments to the IEP required by distance learning?

If an LEA amends a student’s IEP, a PWN is required. Special educators can accept an electronic signature or an email from a parent confirming consent to the amendments in the PWN and the amended IEP. This will expedite the amendment process to ensure that the amended IEPs are in place by March 30, 2020. 

If the LEA and parents are unable to reach agreement on how to provide FAPE to the student during the time a distance learning plan is in place during the COVID-19 pandemic, the PWN would inform parents of their right request an independent educational evaluation, file a complaint, or go to mediation. See Parents’ Rights - Quality Assurance Process (CA Dept of Education), 34 CFR § 300.507.

E. Could an LEA provide parents with a PWN and attach an individualized distance learning plan describing all specialized services that will be provided as a proposed temporary amendment to the student’s IEP?

Yes. This is one of several ways an LEA could document the change of the provision of FAPE to the student. The PWN and attached individualized distance learning plan amendment document could describe what the distance learning delivery model will look like for the student, the provision of any direct and related services, and what accommodations are necessary to ensure the student can access and make progress toward education standards and IEP goals.

F. Depending on the situation, may we provide direct face-to-face instruction to a child for counseling or mental health services in our LEA distance learning plan?

Yes. CDE guidance acknowledges that in-person instruction or services may be appropriate in certain cases, and states:

In some exceptional situations, LEAs may need to provide certain supports and services to individual students in-person in order to maintain students’ mental/physical health and safety for the purpose of supporting the student in accessing the alternative options for learning being offered (e.g. distance learning). With that said, alternative service delivery options should seek to comply with federal, state, and local health official’s guidance related to physical distancing, with the goal of keeping students, teachers and service providers safe and healthy as the primary consideration.

. . .

[I]f an individualized determination is made that a student needs services or supports in-person to maintain their mental/physical health and safety for the purpose of supporting the student in accessing the alternative options for learning being offered (e.g. distance learning), an LEA is not necessarily precluded from providing that service by Governor Newsom’s stay at home order.

G. Is there any guidance regarding how to address the service grid and expectations for staff service time? For example, if a direct service provider is providing weekly services for 30 minutes, do they still need to provide 30 minutes to that student?

As set forth in the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) Guidance, school districts and schools must ensure that students with disabilities also have equal access to the same opportunities, including the provision of a FAPE. And, to the greatest extent possible, provide the special education and related services identified in the student’s IEP or Section 504 plan. 

IEP teams may need to reconvene to determine if compensatory educational services are necessary to address the loss of service minutes during the distance learning planning period. Many disability-related modifications and services may be provided effectively online. These may include, for instance, extensions of time for assignments, videos with accurate captioning or embedded sign language interpreting, accessible reading materials, and many speech or language services through video conferencing. See the OCR/OSRS Supplemental Fact sheet.

H. Will LEAs be cited for failing to conduct a special education reevaluation at least once every three years?

The CDE urges LEAs to try to comply with all special education timelines. In its guidance, it writes:

At this time, the federal government has not waived the federal requirements under the IDEA. The CDE and SBE are working with the USDOE to determine what flexibilities or waivers may be issued in light of the extraordinary circumstances. Until and unless USDOE ultimately provides flexibilities under federal law, LEAs should do their best in adhering to IDEA requirements, including federally mandated timelines, to the maximum extent possible. LEAs are encouraged to consider ways to use distance technology to meet these obligations. However, the CDE acknowledges the complex, unprecedented challenges LEAs are experiencing from the threat of COVID-19. As such, the CDE is committed to a reasonable approach to compliance monitoring that accounts for the exceptional circumstances facing the state.

In general, for purposes of determining LEA compliance with special education timelines, the CDE will consider the days of school site closure as days between the pupil’s regular school session, similar to school breaks in excess of five days planned in the instructional calendar (e.g. Thanksgiving break). For annual or triennial IEP reviews that fall on a day when the LEA is closed due to COVID-19, the CDE will take the exceptional circumstances causing the delay into consideration for purposes of LEA compliance monitoring.

LEAs should document efforts used to mitigate any loss of programming to students. Please also review the following fact sheet, entitled Addressing the Risk of COVID-19 in Schools While Protecting the Civil Rights of Students, from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights, beginning on page 3. See also the supplemental fact sheet entitled Addressing the Risk of COVID-19 in Preschool, Elementary and Secondary Schools While Servicing Children With Disabilities.

I. How will LEAs ensure that special education direct service providers have access to a student’s IEP and any amendments to that IEP or other written document that outlines how the student’s special education, and that related services will be delivered through a distance learning delivery system?

As provided in the special education section of CDE’s guidance, in the event of extended school closures, the LEA remains responsible for the FAPE of its students eligible for special education services who have an IEP or Section 504 plan. LEAs must use the closure time to plan how they will continue to meet the requirements of Part B (3-21) and Part C (birth-3) of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Part B and Part C. 

This will necessitate communication between the case manager, general education teachers, the parent/guardian, and related service providers to ensure that students with disabilities can be appropriately involved and make progress toward the general education standards and IEP goals. Document revisions in writing and communicate them to parents as well as relevant service providers and general education teachers.

J. How do LEAs meet Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) timelines during the distance learning period?

Guidance from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights states: “As a general principle, during this unprecedented national emergency, public agencies are encouraged to work with parents to reach mutually agreeable extensions of time, as appropriate.”

K. How do LEAs and families move forward with Part B (ages 3 to 21) Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) during the period of distance learning?

If a child has been found eligible to receive services under the IDEA, the IEP team must meet and develop an initial IEP within 30 days of a determination that the child needs special education and related services. 34 C.F.R. § 300.323(c)(1).

IEPs also must be reviewed annually. 34 C.F.R. §300.324(b)(1). However, parents and an IEP team may agree to conduct IEP team meetings through alternate means, including videoconferencing or conference telephone calls. 34 C.F.R. §300.328. It is in the best interest of school teams and parents to work collaboratively and creatively to meet IEP timeline requirements, particularly in these challenging times.

Most importantly, in making changes to a child’s IEP after the annual IEP team meeting, the parent of a child with a disability and the LEA may agree to not convene an IEP team meeting for the purposes of making any needed changes, and instead develop a written document to amend or modify the child’s current IEP. 34 C.F.R. §300.324(a)(4)(i). These decisions must be individualized for each student with documented parental input.

L. How do LEAs and families move forward with Part B initial evaluations during the period of distance learning?

In California, an initial evaluation must be conducted within 15 days of receiving the referral for assessment, unless the parent/guardian agrees in writing to an extension. Ed. Code § 56043(a). Once the parent/guardian has consented to the assessment plan, an IEP meeting must occur within 60 days. Ed. Code § 56043(c). To the extent the LEA is able to assess the child without face-to-face contact, the LEA should proceed.

If an evaluation of a student with a disability requires a face-to-face assessment or observation that cannot occur during distance learning, the evaluation would need to be delayed until school reopens. These same principles apply to similar activities conducted by appropriate personnel for a student with a disability who has a plan developed under Section 504, or who is being evaluated under Section 504. See OCR/OSERS Supplemental Fact Sheet. We advise asking parents to agree in writing to extend the timeline by which the initial evaluation must be conducted.

M. How do LEAs and families move forward with Part B reevaluations during the period of distance learning?

A reevaluation of each child with a disability must be conducted at least every three years, unless the parents and LEA agree in writing that a reevaluation is unnecessary or that more frequent reevaluation is necessary. 34 C.F.R. § 300.303(b)(2); Ed. Code § 56043(k). When appropriate, a reevaluation may be conducted through a review of existing evaluation data, which includes any evaluation and additional information provided by the student’s parents. This review may occur without a meeting and without obtaining parental consent, unless it is determined that additional assessments are needed. 34 C.F.R. §300.305(a). Again, during the school closures, we advise asking parents to agree in writing to extend the deadline by which a reevaluation must be accomplished.

As a reminder, when an LEA conducts a comprehensive reevaluation, it does not need to include the assessments required for an initial evaluation. Rather, the evaluation plan should include only those assessments needed to gather the needed data as detailed in 34 CFR §300.305 (a). If there is a question about the validity of a prior assessment, that could be a reason to repeat an assessment. However, it is not necessary in a reevaluation to repeat intelligence quotient (IQ) and achievement assessment unless there is a specific need for updated data.

N. Will evaluation/Individual Family Service Plan (IFSP) timelines (especially the Part C 45-day timeline) apply during the period of distance learning?

Under 34 C.F.R. §303.310 and California Government Code § 95020(b), the initial evaluation and assessments of child and family, as well as the initial IFSP meeting, must be completed within 45 days of the lead agency receiving the referral. LEAs should make reasonable efforts to complete the initial evaluation and assessments. 

However, under 34 C.F.R. §303.310(a) and 17 C.C.R. § 52086(b), the 45-day timeline does not apply if the family is unavailable due to “exceptional family circumstances that are documented” in the child’s early intervention (EI) records. If that is the case, the LEA must specifically document why the evaluation/IFSP was not completed within the 45-day timeline. The COVID-19 pandemic could be considered an exceptional family circumstance. See OCR/OSERS Supplemental Fact Sheet.

O. How do we implement a distance learning model during COVID-19 school closures for students who have IEPs with transition related activities in the community? 

As part of the planning process, IEPs with transition related activities in the community will need to be amended to reflect the distance learning model. See also the OSEP Guidance. 

P. Will there be any special education funding impacts? 

Under Governor Newsom’s Executive Order N-26-20, education funding is retained despite school closures. For that reason, we believe all funding needed for special education and related services provided under an IEP is protected. 

Q. For related special education providers (speech, occupational therapy (OT)), does the platform for video chat (Zoom, Skype, blink, etc.) need to be Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) compliant?

FERPA requirements and HIPAA privacy rule requirements contain similar provisions governing privacy, access and disclosure. However, in the school setting, FERPA, rather than the HIPAA privacy rule, applies to student information and student privacy. This includes information maintained by health-related service providers such as speech-language pathologists and occupational therapists when they are working for or on behalf of the school to provide services to students. More information about the application of FERPA and HIPAA to student health records is available from the US Department of Education. 

FERPA requires that schools cannot disclose private data or personally identifiable information from a student’s education record without consent or an eligible exception. Education records means all records that are directly related to an individual student and that are maintained by an educational agency (school) or someone acting for the school. If the school is providing services to a student in a way that does not disclose private information from the student’s record, then the law will not apply. However, if the school has concerns that use of a video platform to provide services could contain and thus could reveal personally identifiable information, then the school should use a platform that incorporates security measures to ensure that private data is encrypted and that it cannot be accessed by individuals who do not have authority to access the data. Taking these steps will help the school comply with both FERPA and the California Student Online Personal Information Protection Act, which requires schools to protect private data with appropriate security safeguards.

Schools can also address privacy concerns by informing parents about the proposed services and platform for delivery and seeking parental consent.

R. What is allowed in terms of an alternate location for provision of special education and related services? Would this be churches, libraries or other public locations?

The CDE’s guidance permits special education and related services to be provided at school sites, at a student’s home, and anywhere else that remains open pursuant to the Governor’s (or relevant local health officer’s) Safer at Home Order.

S. Would we be able to bus small numbers of students to these locations to provide services, if this could not be done remotely?

Yes, as long as doing so complies with the Governor’s (or relevant local health officer’s) Safer at Home Order. Under the Los Angeles County Safer at Home Order, for example, busing appears to be permitted as long as those on the bus remain 6 feet apart.

T. If a student has a 1:1 paraprofessional and has highly specialized programming, would we send the paraprofessional to the home to assist with education? Would we send the 1:1 para for the designated “school day”?

Yes, either of those options is permitted by the CDE’s guidance.

U. Could we bus small numbers of students to the school to provide services throughout the day?

Yes, the CDE’s guidance contemplates that this could be permitted in “exceptional circumstances,” although LEAs are supposed to “seek to comply with federal, state, and local health official’s guidance related to physical distancing, with the goal of keeping students, teachers and service providers safe and healthy as the primary consideration.”

V. Will the CDE provide direction on distance learning services by providers such as physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech language pathologists and others? This feels more challenging to provide these via distance learning.

The CDE has not yet provided direction to these providers.

W. If we provide special education services to small groups of students remotely, we are concerned that this might violate data privacy because the parents or other people in a student’s house might see who else is receiving these services. What should we do?

Allowing parents to have access to real-time video or audio of students receiving special education services will not violate FERPA, but the names of students who receive these services are considered private education records/student data. For this reason, LEAs and educators should take precautions to ensure that these names are not available to other students or parents without the prior consent of parents or guardians.

If the school has concerns that use of a video platform to provide services could contain and thus could reveal personally identifiable information, then the school should use a platform that incorporates security measures to ensure that private data is encrypted and that it cannot be accessed by individuals who do not have authority to access the data. Taking these steps will help the school comply with both FERPA and the California Student Online Personal Information Protection Act, which requires schools to protect private data with appropriate security safeguards. 

Special educators should also take any additional requirements recommended or required by their administration.

X. Do IEP teams need to meet while schools are closed? How about evaluations of students with disabilities? 

IEP teams are not required to meet in person while schools are closed, however, parents and an IEP team may agree to conduct the IEP meeting through alternate means, including videoconferencing or conference telephone calls. It is in the best interest of school teams and parents to work collaboratively and creatively to meet IEP timelines requirements, particularly in these challenging times. IEP teams may continue to work with parents and students with disabilities during such school closures and offer advice, as needed.

As for evaluations, to the extent the school district is able to assess the child without face-to-face contact, the school district should proceed. If an evaluation of a student with a disability requires a face-to-face assessment or observation that cannot occur during distance learning, the evaluation would need to be delayed until school reopens. On reevaluations, parents and the school district can agree that a reevaluation is unnecessary, or when appropriate, a reevaluation may be conducted through a review of existing evaluation data, which includes any evaluation and additional information provided by the student’s parents. 

Y. If a student with a disability is refusing to participate in the general and special education specialized instruction and related services, what are a school district’s options?

If, during the period of distance learning, a student is not participating in either general or special education instruction, the student’s IEP team will need to review the student’s IEP to determine if the student is exhibiting different behaviors due to the change in the environment from the school setting to the home setting and to revise the IEP, as appropriate, to address any behavior that is impeding the student’s learning. In addition, the IEP team should review the student’s ability to use the technology used to provide the instruction and related services. 34 C.F.R. § 300.324. This could occur through a virtual online IEP meeting or the amended IEP process. 

IEP teams should note that the direct and indirect services, accommodations and modifications provided during distance learning may look different from the services and supports provided in the student’s traditional school setting, as a student’s disability may manifest itself differently in new learning conditions. As emphasized in a webinar from the National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE) on March 26, 2020, the change in learning environment necessitates meaningful discussions with parents/guardians about the home environment context and any barriers the student faces to learning at home. During such discussions, the IEP team may consider what training and support parents/guardians need to support the student’s learning, including training on how to utilize technology, provide positive behavioral interventions and supports, and understand the impact of the student’s disability on learning, and may add those services to the student’s IEP/amended IEP/individualized distance learning plan, as appropriate. Districts and schools should develop methods for ongoing communication with the student’s parent/guardian on how to monitor the effectiveness of distance learning for the individual student and to timely respond to parental and student concerns.

Professional practice tips for designing equitable plans

In this section, we offer some answers to common instructional questions about distance learning.

A. I am so overwhelmed. I do not know where to begin. How do I start developing distance learning plans for special education students?

The best place to start is with the IEP. Review the goals for each student and decide what can reasonably be accomplished in this new setting. You can reframe this moment as a time to build a plan that develops the strengths of each student in new and exciting ways. Some students may struggle with classroom distractions, so this can be an opportunity for them to excel in quieter environments. Other students may have problems focusing in their home environments. Keep these issues in mind and collaborate with parents/guardians and students to create a successful plan.

B. What are some helpful tips I can give my students? I want them to be successful.

Many students will adapt to distance learning with little to no problem. Online platforms and mediated forms of communication have long been infused within the social and academic lives of many students. However, this is not a universal truth. Remember that privilege and opportunity have dictated which students have the most experience with mediated communication.

Students familiar with online platforms may need more help with the practical side of distance learning. Here are some recommendations to consider:

  1. Instruct students to set a schedule that works for their environment and situation. Educators will need to be flexible as students design their schedules. Many students will be helping care for siblings or even sick family members. The presence of a schedule is more important than the timing of that schedule.
  2. Students who write down and post a schedule are more likely to follow it. Tell students to post their schedules in some place convenient for them.
  3. Phone alarms, online calendars and apps that send reminders are great ways for students to stick to their schedules.
  4. Tell students to find a quiet place in their environment from which to work. Remember, not all students have the same space and environmental options.
  5. Remember to set rules about language and communication styles in online platforms. Sometimes students will revert to text message abbreviations or colloquial language in their online communication messaging. Just like in school, students need reminders that playground language is different from academic language.

C. What can I do for students without access to technology or reliable internet connections?

Districts should be working with parents/guardians and educators to provide a free and appropriate public education for all students. This includes providing access to technology or providing reasonable accommodations so that all students can access educational materials. Educators can help with these efforts.

It is important to remember that distant learning and high-tech learning are not the same. Often, people think the two are interchangeable. Assistive technologies can be a simple tool sent home with students to help them grasp writing instruments. Assistive technology can also mean a voice-guided typing tool. Do not feel that every assistive technology needs to be tied to advanced technologies. Click here for a link to the CDE’s assistive technology checklist. Embrace a mix of high-tech and low-tech assistive technologies when making plans for students.

Second, there are resources to assist families of children with disabilities gain access to electronic devices and programs. The following are two resources for information and support for parents/guardians of students who need assistive technology:

D. I am not sure how to provide services in an online setting. How do I provide direct services? Indirect services? Accommodations and modifications?

Most, if not all, in-person services can be provided in a distance learning model. Direct services may take the form of a phone call or a recording sent to a student for him or her to access later. Indirect services, such as modification of materials, can be provided through online platforms. In addition, a variety of technologies allow educators to accommodate students. Some programs allow the instructor to control the computer of the student for instance. Be open to new programs and methods of instruction. AEM has a resource page called Resources for Access and Distance Learning that may help.

E. I have a student who struggles in my physical classroom. He/she/they are being non-responsive when I reach out. When I do get in touch with the student, he/she/they simply say, “everything is fine.” Should I worry?

It will take some students longer to acclimate to distance learning than others. Some students might also have aversions to mediated communication. You should be concerned when a student seems less responsive than normal, but you should take the time to gather the facts. Get as much information from the student and parent/guardian as possible. It might be a good idea to speak to the parent/guardian without the student present.

Educators should also utilize the mental health and social services provided through the district. When possible, connect with school counselors, nurses, social workers and psychologists. Some districts do not have enough related service providers. In those cases, you should contact your administrator to find out what community supports are available for students and families.

F. I am worried about being available for my students. What about questions that happen “in the moment?” I cannot be available at all times. What can I do?

Educators should set personal boundaries. It is not necessary to be available at all times of the day to all students. Instead, you might create an online resource room that is staffed by a paraprofessional. Let students know they can get real-time help in the resource room during set hours. In addition, educators might create a discussion board and allow students to offer assistance to their peers. This is a great way to teach students to work in collaboration.

You will have multiple forms of communication coming at you during this transition. Do your best to respond in a timely manner. Have faith that serious emergencies will rise to the top of your attention and the other questions and concerns will be addressed as you have availability.

G. Will a student’s disabilities show up differently online? What might that look like? What will educators see?

You know your students and you should trust your observations. Do not be afraid to ask questions. Collaborate with other educators to see if they are noticing similar patterns.

Some disabilities may manifest in new ways online. Evaluate each student and document any changes in performance. Here are some other considerations:

  1. Some students with autism thrive in online settings. Many find that the social interactions that create unexpected reactions in the classroom are now limited. For others, the constant presence of a sibling may present new reactions and triggers.
  2. Remember the family dynamic is different than the classroom dynamic. Allow students the space and distance they need to navigate their new learning environments.
  3. An EBD diagnosis can often, but not always, look different in an online setting. This can be one of the more difficult diagnoses to address through a distance learning plan. Watch for changes in communication. Some students with EBD may over-communicate with educators as an attention-seeking strategy. Remember to set boundaries. Observe how characteristics of EBD might be shifting in online settings. Collaboration with colleagues can also help you identify new ways EBD based behaviors manifest online.
  4. Some students are accustomed to online video game platforms. It may be easy for these “gamers” to slip into the colloquial language appropriate for those platforms. Educators will need to remind some students to use their school vocabulary and not their game vocabulary in their academic work.
  5. Some students, especially younger students, might not know online grammar and etiquette. For example, they may not know that all capital letters indicate shouting and anger. The student may just think it is easier to type in all caps. Be patient and assume good intent. Treat these moments as learning opportunities.

H. Are we doing more damage than good? Is distance learning worth the stress?

It is normal and healthy to question a change as drastic as distance learning for every student in our education system. Like any other mode of education, distance learning presents new opportunities and challenges. You will not be able to accomplish all of the same goals in a distance learning setting, but you will also be able to provide new accommodations and lessons for students. Use this as a growth opportunity. It is better to provide distance education than no education at all. Finally, distance education is the best way to keep everyone safe and healthy by slowing the spread of COVID-19.

I. I am worried that my students will become overwhelmed and experience burnout. How can I scaffold my education plans to prevent student burnout?

Educators know what is best for their students. In addition, most educators will have pre-existing relationships with students and families. That makes this transition to distance learning unique. You can build on the established relationships built through in-person communication. You should not try to become a master of all technologies in one week nor should they expect students and families to be fluent in all online mediums. Patience will be the key to success.

In addition, you should gain comfort from the relaxed federal guidelines that allow IEP teams to reassess what goals can be met in distance learning settings. More information about those regulations can be found here.

Finally, you should also assess the home situation for each student. Scheduled phone calls or video chats will provide insight about the progress of each student. Paraprofessionals and ESPs can help with these check-in calls and other educational support activities. In many cases, you will be taking on a coaching role in this new landscape, and it is important to allow students and families enough time to acclimate to their new routines.

Nora Fleming (2020, March 27) has provided important information about scaffolding in her article for Edutopia titled New Strategies in Special Education as Kids Learn from Home.” You can access the article here.

Self-care reminders for special educators

Educators are vulnerable to both secondary traumatic stress and compassion fatigue. This can complicate personal and professional lives. At this moment, everyone is under tremendous stress and uncertainty. Please review your mental health benefits available through your district and your insurance provider. Do not be afraid to access these services. Also, reach out for help when you need it.

It is important to engage in self-care strategies throughout your day. Here are some helpful tips:

  • Name your emotional state and identify what you believe to be the cause of your stress and overload. Identification is the first step to solving a problem.
  • Create a schedule and stick to it. Include mental and physical breaks in your schedule. Something as simple as a five minute break to move around your house can provide wonders for your mental health.
  • Be aware of your body and remember to H.A.L.T. (hunger, anger, loneliness and tiredness). Ask yourself if your fatigue and stress is caused by one of these four dynamics. This can help you find a solution to bring you some comfort.
  • Educators have also experienced traumatic events. Be aware of your own triggers and how this new environment might be affecting your mental health.
  • Do not neglect social connections. Schedule virtual, social gatherings with friends, colleagues and families. Social distancing does not require you to isolate yourself from your social connections. You can keep in touch through a variety of communication tools.
  • Check-in on your colleagues, especially if you have not heard from them in a few days. We have to support each other in this time of mandatory seclusion.
  • Create a peer group at work to support emotional well-being in the time of distance learning.

Again, please seek the help of medical and mental health professionals if you feel overwhelmed, lonely, anxious, or stressed. You can also assess your workplace stressors using ProQOL. This tool “is the most commonly used measure of the negative and positive effects of helping others who experience suffering and trauma. The ProQOL has sub-scales for compassion satisfaction, burnout and compassion fatigue.” This survey can help you identify specific stressors that need to be addressed. You can access the ProQOL here.

Accessing in-person mental health treatment may be challenging right now. However, most insurance plans provide coverage for online and telephone counseling. Many individual therapists and counselors are also switching their services to skype, phone, or other virtual formats, so if you have a practitioner but are restricting your travel, ask them about remote options.

Mental health conditions are also protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. If you think you might need a work modification due to a mental health need, discuss it with a medical provider and consider requesting accommodations with your employer. The Job Accommodation Network now has a comprehensive list of accommodations for employees with mental health issues, as well as specific guidance related to COVID-19.

Educators may also benefit from creating their own self-care plans, even if they do not have a diagnosed mental health issue. The Good Therapy Blog has a number of self-care and anxiety management tips from therapists, including specific guidance on how to deal with stress related to COVID-19.

If you need assistance navigating a physical or mental health issue that is affecting your ability to work, please contact your union representative who can provide support.

Resources for special educators and students

A. General resources

B. Specialized professional organizations of California educators

California has several professional organizations that represent educators with specific licenses and expertise. Each group has issued helpful advice about how to service students during the COVID 19 pandemic.

C. Adapted PE

  • State Council on Adaptive Physical Education (SCAPE) and the California Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance have resources that can be found here.

D. Resources by disability category

We have linked to advocacy groups and professional organizations that work in the area of special education. Each of these groups has a plethora of resources about serving students in the time of COVID-19.

1. Autism

2. Deaf/hard of hearing

American Society for Deaf Children (ASDC)
Phone: 1-800-942-2732 (ASDC)
Email: info@deafchildren.org

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA)
Members: 800-498-2071 (Voice)
Nonmembers: 800-638-8255 (Voice)
301-296-5650 (TTY)
301-296-8580 (FAX)
Email: actioncenter@asha.org

Educational Audiology Association (EAA)
Phone: 800-460-7EAA (7322) (Voice)
Email: admin@edaud.org

National Association of the Deaf (NAD)
Phone: 301-587-1788 (Voice)
301-587-1789 (TTY)

Council of American Instructors of the Deaf (CAID)
(817) 354-8414 V/TTY

Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing
(202) 337-5220 V
(202) 337-5221 TTY
(202) 337-8314 FAX
https://www.agbell.org/COVID-19-Resources

Hearing Loss Association of America

3. Blind/visually impaired

American Council for the Blind

National Federation of the Blind
Phone 410-659-9314
Email nfb@nfb.org

American Foundation for the Blind
212-502-7600
212-502-7601

4. Emotional behavioral disorders

5. Down Syndrome

6. Specific learning disabilities

7. Speech or language impairments

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA)
Members: 800-498-2071 (Voice)
Nonmembers: 800-638-8255 (Voice)
301-296-5650 (TTY)
301-296-8580 (FAX)
Email: actioncenter@asha.org

8. Developmental delay

9. Traumatic brain injuries