Special Education Still Has to Be Individualized During Quarantine

During these unprecedented times of both urgency and delay, I’m finding that the ways in which I share relevant information with our audiences depends on the nature of the information that needs to be shared. Nuanced issues in which science and law become inextricably intertwined and live on as continuing issues, whether we’re in quarantine or not, remain appropriate for our Patreon patron-supported video channel, The Nexus of Special Education Science and Law, while time-sensitive updates and guidance to our audiences as to how to respond to various developments as they happen are more appropriate for our blog and corresponding podcast, Making Special Education Actually Work.

The reality is that producing the videos are way more involved than producing blog posts and podcasts. If we’re going to invest our limited resources into making a video, it has to address an issue that will remain an issue for some time to come and live a long and purposeful life before having to be replaced with a more current version. This is why our most involved video productions are only for our patrons on Patreon.

That’s fine for what it is. It’s highly technical stuff for a highly technical audience. Similarly, we have a podcast specifically for serious lay advocates to build their representation skills, but that is again highly specialized for a specific audience and patron-supported by its paying subscribers.

For information that is too time-sensitive to take days to be made into a decent video around my busy caseload and needs immediate attention from all our audience members for the sake of the general good, our regular blog posts and podcasts through Making Special Education Actually Work are much faster methods of getting the word out, and a great deal of that content is free. So, with all that in mind, today I find it necessary to use Making Special Education Actually Work serve as our most immediate method of getting the following information to the front lines as soon as possible. Some of my worst fears are being realized across my caseload and, presumably, across the country.

It’s necessary for me to remind everybody that special education is individualized to the unique needs of each student. Now, suddenly, hundreds of thousands of special education students have experienced radical changes to their educational programs that each require an individualized response. How they continue to make progress towards their IEP goals while sheltering in place must be individualized just like all the rest of their respective IEPs.

The scope of this issue is unprecedented. Suddenly, every kid in America on an IEP in a quarantined community needs an IEP meeting to modify their respective IEPs to fit the current circumstances. Conforming to the IEP timelines under the circumstances is going to be incredibly challenging for school districts and they may end up engaging in the educational equivalent of triage, figuring out who is at most risk of regression and allocating resources to those students first before moving on to the kids who are likely to recover lost educational benefits by way of compensatory services later on and aren’t at risk for as great an amount of regression as those that require the most immediate attention.

Chances are, the kids with the most costly and involved programs are going to be the ones most at risk of regression if their services get interrupted, so starting with those students is probably the most logical place to begin. These are also the cases in which local education agencies are most at risk of doing something that denies a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), simply because the needs of our most severely impacted students are so significant and any small exclusion can create significant harm, even if accidental.

The most severely impacted students tend to be a relatively small number and figuring out how to deliver individualized services to them that can be reasonably calculated to achieve their respective IEP goals can be resolved first, when the most flexibility among the available resources is necessary. Then, students with less intensive needs can follow, stepping down to the students with the least demanding special education and related service needs at the end of the process.

Trying to shoe-horn a student with severe special needs into a solution using whatever is left over after everyone else has picked the resources clean is discriminatory. Solving the hardest problems first also creates conduits through which other solutions can be implemented, making it easier to solve the more numerous less challenging tasks, and makes them even less challenging to solve. Local education agency dollars previously spent on facilities may need to be reinvested in technology, additional personnel, and plenty of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), to keep up with the federal mandates to provide a FAPE to every eligible student.

How much leniency the various triers of fact will be willing to give to local education agencies in special education due process hearings and appeals over the two years that follow this pandemic will depend on the unique factors of each situation, including the reasons for any delays that occurred, as well as the unique needs of the student for which individualized responses were necessary but for which resources were not readily available. Regardless of how much leniency is reasonable under the circumstances, the expectation is still that a FAPE will be provided to each eligible student, in accordance with both Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Congress did not build any specific contingency plans into the IDEA or Section 504 with respect to implementation during times of emergency, and certainly none that make it acceptable to suspend the protections offered by either Act. There is nothing that says these civil rights laws, or any other civil rights laws that protect people with disabilities, cease to be in force under any circumstances. They are in force at all times, even times such as now.

Anything less is humanity devolving into the Lord of the Flies, and there is absolutely no need for that, but advocates for people with disabilities are having to argue for equality in health care, right now, which is reprehensible! At this moment, the shortages of medical supplies in the areas most severely impacted by COVID-19 are forcing health care providers to decide who lives and who dies, just like in a war zone. The elderly and disabled are the least likely to receive life-saving care, at this point, and it’s unacceptable that our health care providers are being put in the position to have to think this way. Whether or not a person has autism should not determine whether or not they receive life-saving care.

We’re going to lose tens to hundreds of thousands of Americans unnecessarily because of the poor federal response to this situation since it first began. Disability and/or a complex medical history doesn’t automatically make a person unemployed or unemployable. We are losing great minds and true talents to this disease among younger individuals who were compromised by pre-existing conditions. Further, we’re losing people of all ages who had no pre-existing conditions at all, making the unfair distribution of resources in favor of those without disabilities even less justified.

The fact that we are having to actively enforce civil rights law through litigation and formal complaints with respect to access to healthcare during a global pandemic is disheartening. It means that, now more than ever, we can’t neglect the other areas in which civil rights violations against people with disabilities are also occurring, which includes special education. There has to be a unified voice on behalf of individuals with disabilities across all domains to stand firm on the civil rights protections that are already on the books and expect everybody else to also play by the rules. This is no time for anarchy.

With respect to individualized instruction and specialist services, I have to point out that very few students with significant special needs are going to benefit from online instruction. As medical supply production starts to ramp up, now that various industries are retooling their assembly lines to produce enough masks, gowns, latex gloves, etc., to keep all necessary personnel adequately protected and safe, it’s going to have to be accepted as fact that some students simply require in-person services in order to receive educational benefits under the current circumstances, and the staffs who need to provide such in-person services will require adequate protection to stay well and prevent the spread of disease.

Given the immediate shortage of PPE, it’s understandable that this time right now can probably best be used to lay the administrative foundation for how in-person special education services will be deployed once the protective equipment becomes available. But, it also means that many students will be due compensatory service minutes for any time lost, particularly if they are already showing signs of regression by the time in-person services finally start.

Given that states are deciding to close down their schools through the end of the Summer 2020 break and start again in the Fall of 2020, this is going to be a long-term temporary period of interim special education and related services that will have to be tailored to each individual student affected, just as it was supposed to have been done for each student in their normal school settings. If school districts move quickly and strategically enough, they can get something in place and make up lost service minutes before way too many compensatory service minutes are owed to each student.

The good news is that the only things that should have to be changed, provided the goals already tackle every area of unique student learning need and are written in a measurable manner, are services and placement. The goals shouldn’t change. The learning outcomes that the IEP has been pursuing shouldn’t suddenly become inappropriate because of a forced change in placement in response to a national emergency. The quarantine has nothing to do with whether a student’s IEP goals target appropriate learning outcomes.

If you are a parent doing an IEP meeting (by phone or video conference, please!) and somebody from the school suggests eliminating a goal or putting it on hold, don’t go for it. Your child didn’t suddenly experience a reduction in the need to learn what that goal targeted. If they’re trying to get rid of it, it’s because they are struggling to come up with an inexpensive way to teach or provide therapy to it and they don’t want to have to pay what it’s going to cost to legitimately pursue it, which is not cool. It’s also totally unlawful.

It is my sincere hope that public education agencies will respond to the needs of their special education students timely enough to prevent regression and the need for compensatory services as much as possible. The faster and smarter they move on this, the less responsible for compensatory education they will be. If the education agencies go straight to each child’s IEP goals and ask, “Given the limitations with which we are currently faced, what services are going to have to be delivered either in home or in some other 1:1 instructional situation in order to still see these goals met?” they’ll cut to the chase and be as efficient as anyone can be under the circumstances.

IEP teams don’t have to start over at the beginning. They just have to go back to the point where they are trying to decide what services are necessary to meet the goals and how they can be delivered in the placement options currently available. When this conversation was last had for each student on an IEP, the placement options were more plentiful, so that conversation fit what was then the context. But, the context has now changed, so IEP teams need to return to the services and placement portion of the IEP process to address the fact that placement options are now very limited and a fair amount of creativity is going to be needed to work around the limitations that are now imposed by this quarantine.

The current situation also requires school nurses to come up with health care plans to go into each student’s IEP and tailor them on a case-by-case basis for students with unique needs that may require hands-on support for medical equipment, physical positioning, hand-over-hand instruction, and other close contact instructional methods and support services for which PPE will be critically necessary. It is important to include guidance to anyone having to implement an IEP in person as to how to conform to appropriate safety practices in the health care plan section of each special education student’s IEP.

Now is the time for strategic thinking. It’s all hands on deck for those of us who have critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and some of us are way better at things like that than others. I gladly defer to those who can understand things that are way beyond me, like sophisticated mathematical models. We need to defer to those who come up with the most effective and efficient methods of meeting public agency obligations regardless of their titles or training. We need to be working collaboratively rather than competitively. All of us who are trying to make public education work, regardless of the roles we each individually play, have to keep the timbers of the system from being rent apart, right now.

I know one of my students is, thankfully, already receiving in-home instruction from a credentialed special education teacher supported by a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) for three hours a day, using safety protocols as per the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). However, I also know another one of my students is sitting at home having one meltdown after another while her mother pointlessly tries to access Google Classroom in the absence of any special education instructional or behavioral support services.

These students need specialist supports and services from experts with advanced degrees. Almost no parents knows how to deliver this kind of highly specialized instruction. When it comes to specialist-provided related services, like speech/language services or occupational therapy (OT), parents are even more at a loss.

The educational needs of most special education students, because of their increased risk of regression during lengthy breaks from effective instruction, are as significant to their development as is their medical health. Particularly when you are talking about students with developmental disabilities, disruptions in routines and services are likely to lead to educational losses that will take time to recoup; the longer the period of disruption, the longer the period of recoupment.

Recoupment comes at the cost of new learning. Time spent relearning lost knowledge is time not spent learning new information. Regression and recoupment always mean a student falling even more behind same-grade peers, even after lost learning is recovered. Further, developmental windows of childhood development narrow and close as time goes on. When children miss developmental milestones because they are kept in deprived environments, it stunts their developmental growth and it is very difficult to overcome the knowledge deficits later in life.

There are adults everywhere today who are maxed out at Concrete Operations, according to Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development, and that’s enough to get them by for the most part, but they don’t understand big picture concepts and tend to subscribe to magical thinking when it comes to things they can’t deduce from direct observation of physical objects and phenomenon.

Adults like these may be very accomplished at things that involve the manipulation of tangible items, such as using tools to make and/or repair things, or representations of tangible items, such as visual computer models. But, try to get them to explain the differences between democracy and fascism, or love and need, and they can’t do it. These are abstract concepts that require a fully functional pre-frontal cortex, which they don’t have.

And, that is the kind of thing that has me worried about all the students doing some kind of home school thing during this quarantine. We have inexpert parents, the older bunch of which were raised during a time prior to the Common Core and without the types of cognitive stimulation that come with it.

I’m middle aged and I can remember that, in my early adult years, adult literacy was still a big deal. Illiterate but employed adults bemoaned the idea of employers requiring a high school diploma for a job like carpenter, cook, truck driver, or factory worker, which were the types of jobs that large numbers of Americans were pursuing and occupying at the time. A high school drop out could make a truly comfortable living plucking chickens at the local chicken plant, back when I was a teenager and young adult, especially if working the graveyard shift. That was $20 per hour back in the late 1980s.

So, when I say that there are parents out there who are ill-equipped to home school their children right now, I’m not just whistlin’ “Dixie.” There are still a fair number of people my age or close to it who grew up surrounded by adults with a gross under-appreciation of the value of education and now have school age kids or grand-kids for whom they are responsible. They may appreciate the value of a good education, but since they never got one, they don’t have the knowledge necessary to home-school their children.

And, that doesn’t even begin to take into account all of the dysfunctional parents with actively manifesting mental health issues, which can include drug and alcohol addiction, who are now stuck at home with their poor kids and expected to teach them skills they never mastered, themselves. How many of them are actively using in front of their kids to deal with the stress of this situation? How many of them have lost income because of the current circumstances, can’t afford to re-up, and are now experiencing withdrawals while stuck at home with their kids?

You add special needs on top of an already weak family system and then put that family unit through a quarantine made necessary by a global pandemic, and something bad is bound to happen. For a lot of these families, their kids going to school every day is good for everybody involved. It gets the kids away from toxic adult behaviors and around more appropriate role models during the majority of their waking hours, while giving their parents a break that can facilitate peaceable interactions later when the whole family unit is together. For those kids from difficult situations at home who also have special needs, school-based specialist services and individualized instruction can be their lifeline to a better future and they need that lifeline now more than ever.

To the degree parents can be effective parts of an IEP implementation team under the current circumstances, parent counseling and training as related services are going to become increasingly necessary. Whether it’s done online, in person, or a hybrid delivery model of both, the parent has to be trained on how to implement those portions of the IEP for which he/she can assume responsibility during quarantine, which is an IEP team decision. 34 CFR Sec. 300.34 lists parent counseling and training as a related service that can be provided by an IEP.

Qualified personnel will have to make up the balance of the IEP services that cannot be delivered by a parent in consultation with special education and related service personnel. It is not educationally appropriate to delegate 100% of the implementation of an IEP to an inexpert parent. Specialist personnel are still required in some capacity and that has to be determined on a student-by-student basis, just as with any other aspect of an IEP.

While the IDEA does not include a contingency plan specifically for pandemics, it does have rules that provide structure as to the outcomes public agencies are expected to achieve and the mechanisms by which they can be achieved, even as they adapt to ever-changing situations. Public education agencies are just having to rely on these rules and tools to respond in a way never before anticipated. The fact that we can keep these institutions going under the current circumstances speaks to the construction of the enforceable laws, the tenacity of the American people, and the collective belief of our majority in preserving our institutions.

This is not the worst that things could be, as bad as it is for some people, right now. The majority of us will survive the virus, though those of us who survive are likely to lose people we know before it’s over. It’s up to those of us who are not willing to descend into anarchy to continue enforcing the laws that make us who we are, even under these distressing circumstances. We’re needed now more than ever. Human lives, whether they are disabled or not, are worth more than money, and we need to make sure that message remains resoundingly clear in the times ahead to come.

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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