Regression, Compensatory Education, & Quarantine

Photo Credit: Dan Gaken

One of the many populations of individuals directly negatively impacted by the current quarantine is the special education population. Among those students are those whose impairments are significant enough that any significant disruption in their school routines will cause them to regress, which is to lose learning they had previously acquired.

Regression happens for students such as these during lengthy breaks, like summer, which is why we give them Extended School Year (ESY). By extending the school year through periods of normal breaks, we prevent them from losing ground. When kids regress from disrupted instruction, once the instruction resumes, that time has to be spent on recoupment, which means re-teaching what was forgotten. That means time spent re-teaching previously known information instead of adding onto it with new information. For kids already behind in the first place, this puts them even further behind.

Compensatory education can be used to make up for regression and can take different forms. Sometimes its intensive services over a summer break so the student is where they should have been by the time school starts back in the fall. Other times, it’s supplemental services being provided outside of the regular school day in addition to the instruction being provided during school, though that can be pretty tough on a lot of kids. Sometimes, it takes putting the student into a more restrictive, but more intensive instructional placement for a period of time so they can catch up in their learning before being returned to the public school setting with services in place that will prevent them from regressing again.

Compensatory services can be provided in other contexts, as well, regardless of whether regression has occurred or not. When families find it necessary to take their Local Education Agencies (LEAs) to due process to achieve remedies for the deprivation of educational benefits, compensatory education is the likely remedy, though the form it takes varies from case to case.

From a procedural standpoint, if an IEP calls for a specified number of service minutes for a particular intervention and not all of those services minutes are provided as they should be, a minute-for-minute compensatory remedy is due simply as a matter of procedure. The regulatory procedures require that IEPs be implemented as written and, if they aren’t, whatever services that weren’t provided according to their mandatory statements of frequency and duration remain due to the student.

An Individualized Education Program (IEP) is a legally binding contract that obligates LEAs to deliver on it as written, so if they don’t, they have to make up the services minutes to which they committed themselves as described by the affected student’s IEP. When compensatory minutes are ordered following a state-level compliance complaint or due process case on the basis of procedural violations, the compensatory services are minute-for-minute as described by the IEP because the number of service minutes the student should have received are documented in the IEP, which the LEA is legally obligated to implement as written as a matter of procedure.

However, compensatory education can also be ordered by a judge in due process on the basis of substantively inadequate IEPs. In such instances, a student’s IEP does not contain services that it should, so they can’t be enforced as a matter of procedure. When necessary services are left out of an IEP such that the student suffers a deprivation of educational benefit, or when services in the IEP are not delivered as the result of a procedural violation and the student then regresses, now you’re talking about substantive harm.

Failing to follow the rules and owing something previously promised is one thing, but causing further loss of learning by failing to implement the IEP as written such that regression occurs is a much bigger issue. Failing to teach necessary instruction because it was left out of the IEP is just as big of an issue, if not bigger.

When special education students are deprived of educational benefits by their LEAs, how much of what kind of services they get to make up for those deprivations has to be figured out on a case-by-case basis. Judges rely on expert testimony and evidence, usually assessment reports, to figure things out when these cases go to hearing. How well a student’s attorney argues the case has a lot to do with how much compensatory education that student will get for any sustained allegations of substantive harm.

Those are the basics of how and when compensatory education can be ordered. Compensatory education can also be negotiated as conditions of settlement to prevent any kind of regulatory and/or judicial intervention. I’ve even had situations in which procedurally owed compensatory service minutes are written into IEPs at IEP meetings without lawyers and lawsuits even coming up in the conversation. This latter action has usually occurred when there was a temporary lack of a qualified provider and the service minutes had to be made up once the position was filled.

All of this is based on how things were before the quarantine and, at least for right now, no waivers of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) have been authorized by Congress. Parents and educators are still waiting to find out if any waivers will be passed in the near future (sign our petition to ask Congress to not authorize waivers), but for now, the law still stands as it always has.

Any child whose IEP is not currently being implemented as written, right now, is going to be owed compensatory minutes purely on the basis of procedure. If a kid’s IEP calls for 30 minutes per week of speech/language services and that kid has been in quarantine for six weeks without those services, that kid is now due 180 minutes of back-due speech/language minutes, and that number will continue to grow for so long as that kid continues to go without those speech/language services.

Dealing with procedurally required compensatory services along these lines is going to be burdensome enough on LEAs after people adjust to quarantine and new ways of doing things are put into place, as well as once the quarantine is over. Both state and federal education agency officials have already started talking about how they’re going to tackle that.

Dealing with kids who are due compensatory remedy because they were deprived of educational benefits during quarantine because necessary services weren’t in their IEPs in the first place and/or they regressed in the absence of services that were written into their IEPs but not provided, is going to be a whole other thing that is likely to burden our due process mechanisms and take money out of the classroom, virtual or otherwise, to pay lawyers. The substantive compensatory education claims are going to be significant and the reality is that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Compensatory remedies are never as effective as the instruction students receive as a matter of a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). For one thing, IEPs are based on present levels of performance when they are written. Those present levels establish where the student was performing at the time the IEP was written and the IEP goals target learning outcomes for a year down the road, relative to the baselines established by the present levels.

When kids regress from lack of instruction, their present levels of performance move backwards, not forwards. When kids fail to learn for lack of appropriate IEP goals and, thus, a lack of appropriate IEP services, further deficits are induced on top of the deficits that were already there as a result of their disability. When these same kids sit at home not getting appropriate special education, they fall further behind and no amount of compensatory services will ever restore them to where they should have been had their services been appropriately provided in the first place.

Many special education students were facing IEP implementation failures and/or poorly constructed IEPs before the quarantine. Now, many more are joining them in the “Deprivation of Educational Benefits Club,” as they sit at home without adequate services to see their IEP goals met and/or without adequate IEP goals to drive the provision of necessary services. Further, because their learning environments have dramatically changed, many of these children now have new needs specific to learning at home that are not addressed by their IEPs.

Behaviors in response to parents’ attempts at instruction top the list. Parents without any kind of training in delivering specialized instruction are attempting to nonetheless do so without the support of behaviorists that would otherwise be provided to credentialed special education teachers. Most parents give up in exasperation because they have to decide between the lesser of two evils: behavioral regression or academic regression.

Recoupment of academics is usually a lot easier to achieve than remediating a big behavior problem. Remediating a behavior problem requires the student to unlearn maladaptive strategies and replace them with adaptive ones that have to be taught.

Remedial academics just involves new learning; kids generally don’t have to unlearn something inaccurate, first. At worst, they’ll have to be retaught something they learned previously but forgot, before they can pick up with new stuff, again.

Parents who have the means, right now, are working their health insurance to get online speech/language services, consultations with specialists like Occupational Therapists (OTs), and online social skills groups. They are paying out of pocket for online tutors and classes to give their kids some kind of academic routine. Many of those out-of-pocket costs are going to be recoverable as a matter of compensatory education.

There are two ways that compensatory education gets funded:

  • If it is agreed-to or ordered first, it is provided thereafter at the expense of the LEA. Either the LEA pays for it directly or the parents pay for it and the LEA reimburses them, as agreed to by the parties or as ordered by the judge in due process.
  • If it is not agreed-to or ordered first, parents pay out of pocket for the services, then request reimbursement after the fact. If that’s the case, either their LEA will agree to reimburse them, usually via a confidential settlement agreement, or the parents will have to file for due process and prove to a judge that they had to pay out-of-pocket for the services because the LEA failed to provide them, they were educationally necessary, and their child would have likely regressed or otherwise been denied a FAPE without them.

That’s something that some families should seriously think about, right now. Not everyone is out of work. Not everyone is without resources. If savings or lines of credit can be used to provide services in the home, now, while waiting for the local LEA to get its act together, parents can sit on their reimbursement claims until the dust settles. Due process claims come with a two-year statute of limitations. A denial of a FAPE that began on March 1, 2020 will remain viable until February 28, 2022, for example.

Families that have the means to privately fund what their children with special education needs are not currently getting should do so just because it needs to be done, regardless of whether they can recover those monies from their local LEAs or not. But, because the taxpaying public has already paid the LEAs to render a FAPE but they aren’t, parents should still keep their receipts in case they are able to recover their out-of-pocket later. The focus should be on keeping your kids moving forward in their learning and preventing regression. You can worry about the money later, given that you’ve got two years to act on your reimbursement claims.

However, for families that do not have the means to pay out-of-pocket for now, there is a tremendous need for immediate intervention. As LEAs scramble to come up with solutions, one that seems obvious to me but which might not occur to others is to open up the provision of related services by private providers that are not currently licensed as Non-Public Agencies (NPAs).

There are more qualified providers that are not licensed as NPAs than there are providers that are licensed as such. The barriers to entry into the NPA arena are ridiculous and multitudinous, plus they get paid at Medicaid rates, which is usually less than what it costs to deliver the services, so providers can’t keep their doors open by operating as NPAs.

Most NPAs are also set up to do business with other agencies and private insurance, which offsets the shortfall created by their NPA business. In many states, becoming an NPA is more of a marketing expense to get the agency’s name out there in front of people, build up a trusted reputation as a provider, and then dump the NPA status to carry on with private insurance and other agency contracts in exchange for payments that actually keep their doors open.

While NPA licensing requirements may have been created to keep the sketchy people out, they actually achieve keeping most of the really good people out, too. Now is the time to reform that process so that we have more providers that can reach into the homes via whatever safe means possible of the special education students who are currently being denied a FAPE and regressing at this very moment.

In-person services can be provided with adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and safety protocols. Not every special education student is able access instruction online. Those who can, should, but that still takes a lot of skill and expertise to facilitate. When you’ve got a kid at home with a parent refusing to participate and no in-home behavioral services to facilitate their participation, the parent sits there helpless as the parent/child relationship suffers and no learning occurs.

By relaxing the NPA licensing rules and letting non-NPA providers that are otherwise qualified with the proper professional certifications, such as Speech-Language Pathologists (SLPs) and OTs who are medically certified, a great many students can still receive services at home who otherwise wouldn’t due to LEA staffing limitations.

The goals that were determined to be educationally necessary by each child’s respective IEP team are still educationally necessary. The services determined necessary to see those goals met in a year’s time are still necessary.

The only thing that has changed is placement, and now IEP teams need to figure out how to deliver services in the current placement such that the goals are still met. This is the same line of inquiry every IEP team has to pursue when normally making placement decisions. Placement is driven by what learning environment is the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) in which the services can be delivered such that the goals are met. That’s best practices according to educational science, plus it’s the law.

Now that placement changes have been forced on everyone because of quarantine, it’s time to back up the conversation to that point, again, where services necessary to see the goals met in the current placement have to be identified. That said, new goals may actually be needed to address how the student functions in the home learning environment. New evaluations may be needed to inform what those goals should look like.

One thing is certainly clear from all of this: the next time the IDEA gets reauthorized, it will need to include language that describes how it will be implemented during a national crisis. The absence of any such language automatically puts LEAs out of compliance when disaster hits, which benefits no one; leaves students stranded without a contingency plan, deprived of a FAPE and actively regressing with each passing day; and creates compensatory education claims that will become a greater burden on the public education system than serving these students appropriately during a crisis in the first place.

Anne M. Zachry, M.A. Ed. Psych. on Linkedin
Anne M. Zachry, M.A. Ed. Psych.
Anne M. Zachry, M.A. Ed. Psych.
Anne has been a special education and disability resource lay advocate since 1991, a paralegal to attorneys working in special education and disability rights law since 2005, and an educational psychologist, behavior analyst, and curriculum developer since 2013.

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