Updated April 29, 2020
As distance learning becomes our new reality, 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.
Four common questions and concerns
1. 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.
Learning — California Dept. of Education
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
2. 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
3. What other logistical issues should guide educator
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
4. 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.
Suggestions for 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
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
- 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
- An opportunity to deliver curriculum accommodations we would
typically deliver in the classroom.
If a check-in call becomes a longer conversation with a
- They have questions or concerns regarding their students IEP,
- 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
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
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
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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. Below is a list of suggested questions
to ask your LEA about distance learning.
Questions to ask when discussing distance learning with your LEA
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:
- 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
- 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?
- How are you directing special
education educators and specialists to deploy distance learning?
Do you have your plan in writing?
- What guidance will you provide
regarding best in-class practices during this distance learning
- What resources and training will
you provide so that best in-class practices are actually possible
- 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?
- What supports are in place for
parents who are not technologically savvy?
- How are parents who do not speak
English being supported?
- What are the procedures and
protocols for communicating with parents of students with IEPs to
provide updates on services and supports during distance
- In regards to legal timelines for
initial assessments, triennials and annual IEPs, what are LEAs
doing to address difficulties in keeping those timelines?
- How are services delivered
- 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.
Please note: This section is quite in-depth.
There are 25 questions and answers that follow.
1. How do we determine what is a FAPE for students with
disabilities with an individualized education program (IEP) or
Section 504 plan?
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
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
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.”
2. Is daily interaction with educators required for
students with IEPs, and how are direct service minutes
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.
3. Do I need to amend each student’s IEP to address
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
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
4. 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 (California Dept of
Education), 34 CFR § 300.507.
5. 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.
6. 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?
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
. . .
[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
7. 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.
8. 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
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
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.
9. 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
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.
10. 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.”
11. 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.
12. How do LEAs and families move forward with Part B
initial evaluations during the period of distance
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.
13. 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
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.
14. 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
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
Supplemental Fact Sheet.
15. 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.
16. Will there be any special education funding
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.
17. 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.
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
18. 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.
19. Would we be able to bus small numbers of students to
these locations to provide services, if this could not be done
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
20. 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.
21. 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
22. 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.
23. 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
Special educators should also take any additional requirements
recommended or required by their administration.
24. Do IEP teams need to meet while schools are closed?
How about evaluations of students with
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
25. 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
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
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
In this section, we offer answers to nine common instructional
questions about distance learning.
I am so overwhelmed. I do not know where to begin. How do
I start developing distance learning plans for special education
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
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- Phone alarms, online calendars and apps that send reminders
are great ways for students to stick to their schedules.
- Tell students to find a quiet place in their environment from
which to work. Remember, not all students have the same space and
- 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
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
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. 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:
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.
I have a student who struggles in my physical classroom.
The student is being non-responsive when I reach out. When I
do get in touch with the student, the student simply says,
“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.
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.
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
- 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
- Remember the family dynamic is different than the classroom
dynamic. Allow students the space and distance they need to
navigate their new learning environments.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
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 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.
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 has provided important information about scaffolding
in her article for Edutopia (March 27, 2020) titled
“New Strategies in Special Education as Kids
Learn from Home.”
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.
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
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
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
SPECIALIZED PROFESSIONAL ORGANIZATIONS
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.
- 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.
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
2. Deaf/hard of hearing
Society for Deaf Children (ASDC)
Phone: 800-942-2732 (ASDC)
Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA)
Members: 800-498-2071 (Voice)
Nonmembers: 800-638-8255 (Voice)
Educational Audiology Association (EAA)
Phone: 800-460-7EAA (7322) (Voice)
National Association of the Deaf
Phone: 301-587-1788 (Voice)
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
Loss Association of America
3. Blind/visually impaired
American Council for the Blind
National Federation of the
American Foundation for the
4. Emotional behavioral disorders
5. Down Syndrome
6. Specific learning disabilities
7. Speech or language impairments
Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA)
Members: 800-498-2071 (Voice)
Nonmembers: 800-638-8255 (Voice)
8. Developmental delay
9. Traumatic brain injuries