Championing a “free appropriate public education” during a pandemic

Collaborator: Brittany Harlow
Published: 08/20/2020, 12:33 PM
Edited: 03/11/2021, 10:22 AM
(TULSA, Okla.) With educators working around the clock to continue to provide learning to students during the COVID-19 pandemic, special education is proving to require new levels of creativity. Individualized education programs, or IEPs, have been required for special education students since 1975. This personalized, documented plan is required by law to include a certain amount of information, such as the student’s annual goals, special education and services, and level of participation with non-disabled children and mandated tests. Learn more about IEPs here: During the current pandemic, the federal laws governing special education and IEPs have not changed. And special education teachers are having to come up with even more individualized plans for a whole slew of scenarios. Todd Loftin is the deputy superintendent of Special Education Services. “So, if a school suddenly shuts down, and you can’t go in person anymore, the question is ‘What do we do now?’” Loftin said. “Which is exactly what happened last spring. And so, we were all sort of scrambling to figure out what to do.” The guide “Special Education and Related Services During the 2020-21 School Year” was released by the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) after the pandemic hit: It states that a student’s IEP can be revised due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, acknowledging school closure can be traumatic, resulting in student regression or the development of new disability-related areas of need, like anxiety. That revised IEP must then be followed, and continued to be modified as needed. Loftin said the U.S. Department of Education reminded states last spring that contingency plans can be a part of a student’s IEP. That addition is now part of the state’s online system. “We use a system called ‘Ed Plan’ to develop a contingency plan within the IEP itself so that districts at this point, this went live last Saturday, are now able to go ahead and create a contingency plan in case they have a student receiving in person services and the whole school is shut down or a student has to be quarantined,” Loftin said. “We’re all doing this for the first time,” Alana Murphy said. “Most of us. In our lives.” Murphy just entered her third year as a special education teacher at Ranch Heights Elementary School in Bartlesville. “Hopefully families are thinking about that, too,” Murphy said. “What is their contingency plan? You know, you get a call that your child’s class was exposed by a positive test and they’re going to all have to be home for 14 days according to the reopening plan. You know, parents should already be working on what that would like. Myself, I have two kids in school. What am I going to do if I’m teaching full-time?” Murphy told us she is grateful their school district has been proactive in navigating education during the pandemic since the beginning, from making sure every student has their own device and providing hot spots to kids who don’t have reliable internet at home to obtaining PPE for teachers and students and offering a variety of learning options this fall. “I know other families and teachers around the state that just have felt like they don’t know what’s going on,” Murphy said. “They don’t know what to expect. I feel like our admin has been very transparent and at least attempted to give parents a voice to say I’m concerned about this or I just want my kid back in school.” “They started working on the reopening plan in the spring before we even knew what the school year was going to look like.” OSDE’s special education guide states that “students with disabilities often benefit from peer models, and providing inclusive groupings of students or using technology might help to support peer-to-peer connections while maintaining physical distancing requirements.” For instance, Murphy said students with autism have social difficulties. “So, some of those goals can only be worked on in the context of relationships and community,” Murphy said. “And so, it looks different to try and guide a student with autism through positive peer interaction when you’re virtual, but in 2020 so many things are virtual.” Murphy said videoconferencing applications like Google Meet worked well because students were still able to get that social interaction. She told us her students have done well with it so far, and the experience has actually been quite beneficial due to the age of technology we’re living in. “It’s a good opportunity to get them engaged with using technology in a meaningful way and not just watching YouTube and so that was new for a lot of our kids,” Murphy said. “The majority of special ed students are in the gen-ed classroom and they have accommodations,” Loftin said. “Their progress is monitored by special ed teachers. But those students for the most part will do fine in a virtual environment.” But going virtual will have its share of problems for some children with disabilities. Are there any physical or developmental barriers that prevent the student from learning that way? Do they require additional technology? The only way a school district can be excused for fulfilling their obligation of special education is if the family refused their services. It’s up to the district to figure out how to make it work, including students who need more individualized care. “Probably about one percent of our student population represents those kids so they might need to come to school still to get some related services, they have paraprofessionals, things like that,” Loftin said. “So we’ve given a lot of guidance out about just how to think through what people need to be looking at as they’re reviewing their IEPs and they’re having IEP meetings and they’re amending some IEPs.” He said, for the most part, OSDE’s Special Education Services does not provide direct services to students. “Our role is really monitoring and compliance,” Loftin said. “Data. Finance. And then professional development and technical assistance.” But, Loftin said, they have been doing what they can to help out, like providing additional guidance and altering the way they are monitoring school districts to be more accommodating. They released an additional $8 million from their Individuals with Disabilities Act Part B Federal Funds, noting that the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act, did not specifically address special education needs. As of June, those extra funds can now go toward anything districts need to continue special education during the COVID-19 pandemic, but mean the state will have half as much money from that fund for the next year. Another resource for special education Loftin talked about was short-term and long-term technology loans from ABLE Tech out of Oklahoma City University, thanks to a statewide assistive technology contract. He said the school also works with districts to help them get funding and training for additional devices. If virtual learning is not a fit for a particular student, alternatives could mean continuing full-time or part-time in-person instruction for students in self-contained special education classes, finding another location to educate the students or even teaching students in their homes if their school shuts down. Other compensatory services may be needed, but can’t interfere with services the student is receiving under their IEP. For students, teachers and families, that could include longer school days, learning on the weekends or over breaks, or even outside service providers. And school districts are required to provide a free appropriate public education to special education students who are absent due to COVID-19 infection, no matter how long they are gone. As a teacher and mother to two children, all potential outcomes are constantly on Murphy’s mind. “The teachers there know that all of the students are in the same boat so one thing that we’ve really, superintendent down, is said is that we have to be flexible and have grace this year,” Murphy said. “And I know that’s what my son is going to get at middle school but that’s still... I mean, I’m still a mom. So, I still worry about that. I would worry about that anyway.” And our two experts agree, assisting their kids while balancing work and all the other aspects of their home life is nothing new to special education parents. “I think that’s just the best way forward is to collaborate, do the best we can every day,” Murphy said. “Social distancing. You know, we’re trying our best.” The Oklahoma Media Center, launched by Local Media Foundation with financial support from Inasmuch Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation, is a collaborative of 18 Oklahoma newsrooms that includes print, broadcast and digital partners. The OMC’s first project is Changing Course: Education & COVID. This story is part of that effort. Participating newsrooms are Big If True, the Center for Independent Journalism, CNHI Oklahoma, Curbside Chronicle, Griffin Communications, KFOR, KGOU, KOSU, The Luther Register, NonDoc, Oklahoma City Free Press, Oklahoma Eagle, OU Student Media, Oklahoma Watch, The Oklahoman, StateImpact Oklahoma, Telemundo Oklahoma, the Tulsa World and VNN.


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