During the school closures in the spring of 2020 and for some, the fall of 2020, children with IEP plans may not have received the free appropriate public education that their IEPs specified. For many, school districts were not providing sufficient disability-related modifications to their distance learning offerings or adequate substitutes for in-person services like speech or language therapy. And for children who were infected with the coronavirus or self-isolating, the home instruction they received may not have met the agreed-to IEP requirements.
While the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that students with disabilities have equal access to the same opportunities that the general education population has, during the early days of the public health crisis, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) recognized that "there may be exceptional circumstances that could affect how a particular service is provided." At the time, the DOE put out guidance that schools must provide students the special education and related services identified in the student’s IEP "to the greatest extent possible."
Some schools were more successful at providing modifications, such as extensions of time for assignments, speech and language services through video conferencing, videos with captioning or embedded sign language interpreting, and providing accessible reading materials to all, or if not available, having inaccessible documents read over the phone to those who needed it. Some students, however, whether because of their school district or their specific needs, did not receive adequate services that were mandated by their IEPs.
When a child's in-person instruction resumes, the IEP team should determine whether the child is entitled to compensatory educational services for the time that the child did not receive the education and services as called for by the IEP and to make up for any skills that may have been lost during that time. But keep in mind that IDEA allows for flexibility in determining how to meet the individual needs of students with disabilities, so if your child was provided with substituted services (say speech therapy services over Zoom video conferencing rather than in person), the IEP team may decide that compensatory services are not required.
Keep in mind that, whether it is your school district, a hearing officer, or any agency investigating a concern you have about your child’s IEP, the unusual nature of the crisis will be taken into account when coming up with a resolution. As a general rule, I believe that most parties in the special education process, whether families or educators, are trying to do their best. This philosophy may play a bigger role in any COVID-19 disputes you may have.
For more information on special education rights and procedures during COVID, read our articles on school closures, due process, and IEP meetings and IEP assessments, notice, e-signatures, and records during COVID.