Resources > Charter Currents > Charter Currents: Tips from the Front Lines on How to Transition Special Education to Distance and Online Settings

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:

  • For many students, services may be provided using the same providers and groupings as on-site, to the extent feasible. Special education teachers may support general education teachers regarding accommodations and perhaps modifications. They may support students by offering tutoring or group chats about lessons, checking in via video conference or phone call to see what the student needs to "keep up."
  • Students may need more frequent check-ins to monitor progress, but a student’s “minutes” will not necessarily be met in the same way as in the on-site program.
  • In some cases, families may need additional devices or adaptive support. There is a cost attached to this, but the technology is often essential and the cost may ultimately be a lot cheaper than some alternatives.
  • Many speech and language therapy providers are transitioning to online mode. Some great apps are available. Note, however, that some online platforms were not designed to meet current demand and have experienced system crashes due to increased usage.
  • In “hard-to-serve” cases, schools may need to think outside the box, literally and figuratively. What can be done to make the distance learning work for that student and his or her family?
  • Note that if the school does not provide services for a student, the school may be obligated to provide compensatory services when the regular provision of services resumes.

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:

  • If the school has stopped educational services for all students, a blanket prior written notice might be used to inform families of all students with disabilities of the change and the expected duration of the change. The blanket prior written notice can indicate the upcoming change to a distance program.
  • If the school is providing educational services to students, a blanket prior written notice can be used to inform families of the change to a distance-program. This does not place the school fully in compliance unless it has also amended IEPs, but it covers one legal requirement.

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.

  • As soon as feasible – ideally prior to beginning distance learning – the school should amend each student’s IEP to reflect the change to a distance program and align services and supports to implement the changes. This covers the other legal requirement.

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.


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Posted: 03/26/2020