New Education Guidelines in Response to COVID-19 Disruptions

Parents and educators have a new tool to help develop and put in place individualized education programs while taking the current COVID-19 pandemic into consideration.

The US Department of Education issued a “Return to School Roadmap” designed to help education teams develop individualized education programs (IEPs) during the pandemic and a return to in-school learning. The guidelines address disruptions and delays school districts have experienced in providing appropriate services to students. The new roadmap offers guidance on helping students who have lost skills or expected progress toward their annual IEP goals. Parents can use this guide to help answer questions they may have as their children return to school.

Guidelines for IEP requirements

An IEP supports the educational needs of a child and must include the child’s present levels of academic achievement, along with the impact of their disability on involvement and progress in the general education curriculum. IEP goals must be aligned with grade-level standards for all children with disabilities. The guidelines state that a child’s IEP should be in effect at the start of each school year. Parents and the educational team may need to meet before the start of the school year in order to have an IEP in place.

Education plans need to be reviewed at least once a year. How the annual IEP review meeting takes place is determined by both the school and parents. They may meet in person where possible or by video chat or teleconference. The guidelines encourage the IEP team to develop a contingency plan for school campus closures or a return to virtual learning. This contingency plan makes sure a child does not experience a disruption in special education services.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many children have experienced increased stress, anxiety, depression, fear, and physical isolation. Specific supports need to be provided for children who became sick with COVID-19 and experience post-COVID conditions and symptoms, sometimes called “long COVID” or “post-COVID syndrome.” Children who lost their homes when a parent lost employment or who experienced the death of family members or friends due to COVID-19 need to have special considerations for their needs while experiencing uncertainty and grief. The IEP should take into account the effects of COVID-19, either the illness or social effects, on “a child’s ability to engage in their education, develop and re-establish social connections with peers and school personnel, and adapt to the structure of in-person learning.” If a child is exhibiting behavior problems due to increased stress or anxiety from the pandemic, the IEP team should provide the child with appropriate behavioral support.

Education in the least restrictive environment

The new guidelines highlight the importance of providing educational services in the least restrictive environment. Before the pandemic and the need to close school campuses, virtual learning was considered the most restrictive environment. This is no longer the situation if all students are receiving virtual instruction. For students in rural communities who may not have access to reliable internet and are in a virtual learning environment, there are federal funds available to cover costs associated with providing internet access (including hardware or software) through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.

IEP planning teams in states that do not require schools to follow CDC guidelines for COVID-19 need to keep in mind whether or not a student is receiving services in the least restrictive environment possible, especially if the student has health issues. Special care must be taken to protect the student’s health while also providing educational services and support.

A child might qualify for compensatory services if there have been disruptions or delays in special education services due to the pandemic. Compensatory services provide “an equitable remedy to prospectively address the past failure or inability… to provide appropriate services, including those that were identified on the child’s IEP.” Services can be extended beyond the eligible age if there was a failure to provide appropriate services during the pandemic. Parent can appeal a decision by the IEP team regarding compensatory services if they don’t agree with the proposed educational plan.

Learn more about your child’s educational rights:

Join the discussion: How have the COVID-19 disruptions affected your child’s education plan? Has the school worked to make sure the plan was continued during this time?