The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically altered schooling for many children in the United States. While some schools have reopened this Fall with fully in-person classes, many are starting the school year with fully remote learning or with in-person/remote hybrid options.
Changes in school routines can be difficult for children and families. For families whose children are in need of educational supports and services, schooling during the global pandemic may be particularly stressful. In this article, we have assembled information and resources that might be useful to families of children who have educational support needs. The information included here is most applicable to people living in the United States.
What are IEPs and 504 Plans?
Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and 504 Plans are documented agreements describing educational supports and services that a school will provide to an individual student. You can find information about IEPs here, and information about 504 plans here. There are similarities and differences between the two types of plans. Both were established by federal laws; IEPs by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and 504 Plans by the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Only public schools are required to offer IEPs, but public and private schools are required to offer 504 plans. Student supports under 504 Plans are delivered within the classroom setting, whereas IEPs give students access to specialist supports, such as speech or occupational therapies, that go beyond the conventional structures of classroom-based teaching and learning.
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Can my child access their usual IEP and 504 Plan support during the pandemic?
When schools are closed to all students because of COVID-related concerns, requirements to provide special education services are largely suspended. But as long as schools are in session, even if learning is happening remotely, schools are expected to do what they can to ensure that students will receive IEP and 504 Plan supports and services. It is reasonable to expect that services and supports will need to be provided in different ways during the pandemic, especially in schools that have transitioned to remote learning. This information sheet from the United States Department of Education provides additional details about service provision during the pandemic.
How will my child’s IEP or 504 Plan supports be provided during the pandemic?
504 Plan supports generally focus on accommodations to make learning equally accessible to kids with different learning and thinking styles and processes. If your child is attending school in person, it is reasonable to expect that their 504 Plan accommodations will not change much. In remote learning scenarios, students may have different accommodation needs than their in-person learning needs. If your child has a 504 Plan and has transitioned to remote learning, we recommend having a conversation with your child’s teachers about the current 504 Plan and about ways to support your child’s remote learning.
IEPs often include supports from specialists, and how these types of supports are provided may change during the pandemic. Even for students who are learning in-person, specialist services may temporarily shift to virtual or hybrid delivery models. If your child has an IEP, contact their school and arrange a meeting with a teacher or administrator to review the IEP and to discuss pandemic-related modifications. This letter from the American Academy of Pediatrics describes how your pediatrician might be able to advocate for your family if you feel your child needs more educational supports than your school is providing.
Can my child be evaluated for an IEP or 504 Plan during the pandemic?
Parents can request an IEP evaluation for their child in public school settings at any time. During the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Education suggests the following timelines:
Schools must convene IEP meetings within 30 days of a parent’s request and review IEPs at least annually. IEP meetings can happen through video conferencing.
An initial evaluation must be conducted within 60 days of receiving parental consent.
What if my child is not receiving needed educational supports during the pandemic?
If your child is not receiving needed educational supports and services, talk with their teachers, the administrators at their school, and the “agency representative” of your child’s learning plan. If you feel the school is not being supportive, you can make a complaint with the school district special education coordinator. Check your state department of education guidelines, too – if you feel your child’s school and district administrators are not responsive, then you may have the option of filing a complaint with the state department of education.
What happens after the pandemic?
Like us, you may be experiencing days when it feels like the COVID-19 pandemic will never end. Scientists predict that it could take years, but that the pandemic will eventually be over. As you ponder your child’s education during the pandemic and beyond, remember that education is important to children’s wellbeing and that your child has the rights to educational supports, even during a pandemic. When school returns to normal, or near-normal, check in with your school to see what post-pandemic adjustments might be needed in your child’s education plan. And in the meantime, do what you can to take care of yourself and your family. And to advocate for your child’s educational needs and rights.