Sacramento, CA – Like many Local Education Agencies in California, charter schools are grappling with how to serve students with Individualized Educational Programs (IEPs) via distance learning. Notwithstanding recent guidance from the federal Department of Education encouraging the transition of special education services to distance learning, federal law provides very little flexibility on point. Accordingly, the California Department of Education’s March 20 guidance and March 23 memo are considerably more measured than the federal guidance. LEAs must tread carefully around costly legal risks while balancing them against the desire to provide instructional support as directed in Governor Newsom’s executive orders.
Absent immediate action by Congress and the President to temporarily suspend applicable law, IEPs must still be revised according to the usual deadlines specified in federal law and following the usual procedural safeguards. One exception is for annual or triennial IEP reviews that fall on a day when the LEA is closed due to COVID-19. The CDE has indicated it will take the exceptional circumstances causing the delay into consideration for purposes of LEA compliance monitoring.
In practical terms, the sudden transition of special education services to a distance learning model will present extraordinary challenges for some students and families. Most charter school educators and families are stepping up, but this is uncharted territory for most. Charter schools will need to do their best and hope they can avoid potentially disastrous costs of related lawsuits and requirements to offer compensatory services.
For decades, many charter schools have successfully offered special education and related services through independent study, online, and distance-based practices. CSDC also notes that some charter schools appear to be successfully transitioning their students from more traditional modes and settings during the COVID-19 closures. CSDC offers the following practical tips based on our communications with state and national-level experts and from charter schools that are successfully navigating the challenges. We caution that we are not attorneys, do not provide legal counsel, and recommend seeking qualified counsel and working in cooperation with your special education local plan area (SELPA) when addressing these issues.
Communicate with Parents
Parents need to know what is happening with their child. Most parents will be understanding if they know that the school team is trying their best for their child in a difficult situation. From a legal perspective, this presumably includes providing required notice as described below.
Determine an Appropriate Educational Program
Early in the COVID-19 school site closure process, many schools are in a “limbo” stage, offering varying degrees of instructional support until they navigate the special education, technology, labor, and other challenges. Some are providing paper or electronic “packet work” to students in the interim while they figure how to provide more robust distance learning. Some schools have launched robust online and distance offerings and have thought through how to transition special education services for each child, and others are still making those determinations. Many charter schools have operated using online and distance instruction for decades and, where they have had to transition services for some services, the transition generally has been easier for them.
Schools that successfully offer special education services at a distance tell us that it is do-able, if one starts by considering what makes sense given each student’s needs:
Provide Required Notice
Presumably nearly all site-based charter schools in California have stopped their regular educational model by now. Ideally, every such charter school would have provided prior written notice to every parent prior to that stop. Law requires LEAs to provide prior written notice to parents before proposing to add, change, or deny services and/or change the placement of a special needs child. It also mandates the provision of free and appropriate public education (FAPE) to a child. School closure and/or transition to distance learning presumably both trigger a need to provide prior written notice. In current practice, many LEAs are playing catch-up as they address competing priorities during the COVID-19 crisis.
If a school has not yet provided prior written notice, CSDC strongly suggests providing it immediately:
See a customizable template for prior written notice due to COVID-19 here. CSDC thanks the El Dorado County Office of Education (EDCOE) Charter SELPA for making this template available. A Spanish translation should be available on the EDCOE Charter SELPA’s resource page soon.
Amending every IEP and implementing the related changes can be a daunting workload, especially in the midst of a larger crisis. Some schools, however, have done so rapidly and for all of their special need students. To amend the IEP, determine how services will be provided, schedule a phone call to amend the IEP, and use a service such as DocuSign to obtain the required signatures.
To make the workload manageable, charter schools may wish to have each student’s case manager (education specialist or other provider) send prior written notice and conduct the calls to amend IEPs rather than involve the school leaders in every instance. The person conducting the IEP should explain to parents that services will look and feel different, but the school will do their best to support students.
See a sample amended IEP to reflect a home-based program due to COVID-19 here.
Most parents understand the situation, want services to continue in the best form they can, will consent to amending IEPs without an in-person meeting, and will be receptive to your efforts. In some cases, the school or the parents may be concerned about how distance learning can meet the child’s needs. Where there is greater concern, schools may need to give closer attention.
See What Works
Some students will be more successful in a distance learning model than others. The school and the family will need to try things and monitor what is working. After a reasonable time – perhaps six to eight weeks – if the program modifications are unsuccessful and the COVID-19 crisis has not abated, schools may need revise the interim services.
For Additional Guidance and Resources, See Also: