Education Department Addresses Special Education Concerns Related To COVID-19

Education Department Addresses Special Education Concerns Related To COVID-19

Original Article by Michelle Diament | November 2, 2020 |

With two new guidance documents, federal education officials are clarifying issues facing both young children with disabilities and those transitioning to adulthood amid the pandemic.

The U.S. Department of Education issued question-and-answer documents in recent weeks aimed at two very different groups — infants and toddlers with disabilities who are just starting their educational journey, as well as transition-age students and adults receiving services through vocational rehabilitation.

The guidance comes in response to questions the Education Department has received from stakeholders across the country about how to provide services to those with disabilities in light of COVID-19.

In the case of infants and toddlers participating in programs provided under Part C of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, federal officials are addressing how meetings can be held remotely and how timelines for providing services might be affected.

In addition, the guidance outlines what should happen if services cannot be provided according to the child’s individualized family service plan as a result of the pandemic. In this circumstance, the Education Department says that parents should be notified and the child’s plan should be updated to reflect which services can be provided. Services may need to be administered in different ways, the agency said, which could mean by telephone or videoconferencing or as consultative services for the parent.

With regard to older students, the Education Department is making clear how services designed to prepare those with disabilities for employment can continue. Notably, the agency said that work-based learning experiences for students with disabilities can happen online rather than in-person.

“Online activities could be paid or unpaid work-based learning experiences to the extent that internet businesses or businesses that can engage in remote service delivery or telework offer work-based learning opportunities that can be documented and reported and meet the needs, career exploration interests, and informed choices of students with disabilities,” the guidance states.

Vocational rehabilitation agencies “should make every effort” to arrange opportunities that explore students’ “potential career goals leading to competitive integrated employment,” the Education Department said.

There is nothing in the law that requires work-based learning experiences to be in-person, so virtual situations could extend beyond the pandemic, the guidance indicates.

In addition, the Education Department is spelling out what to do about students with disabilities who graduated from high school earlier this year who missed out on pre-employment transition services because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In those cases, the agency says that services can still be provided if individuals with disabilities continue to be enrolled in some type of educational program, including postsecondary education.

“Unfortunately, if a graduating student with a disability does not intend to pursue an educational program of any kind, the student would not be able to receive pre-employment transition services at the end of the school year, regardless of whether those services were interrupted or canceled during the final year of secondary school,” reads the guidance.

That’s because under the law, pre-employment transition services are only available to students with disabilities, the Education Department said. Individuals who no longer qualify as students, however, can apply for vocational rehabilitation services outside of the school system.

The Q&A document also covers a host of other issues including what to do if vocational rehabilitation services take longer to complete or if additional services are needed because of COVID-19.

The Education Department has regularly issued Q&A documents on a range of issues since the pandemic began earlier this year. The guidance is not legally binding, but is intended to serve as the agency’s interpretation of existing laws.

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