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Students with Disabilities During the Quarantine: How Can We Help

15%
of the global population experiences disabilities, while around 150 million
people have significant restrictions. So how do students with disabilities
should cope with the Covid-19 quarantine? Let’s discuss this in today’s
article.

The
past few weeks were a rather rough period for education leaders and governments
across the US and abroad because they had to decide whether to close schools
and universities, for how long, how to organize the educational process, and of
course, how these closures will influence students with disabilities.

Key Principles for Education Leaders

Once
the World Health Organization has declared Covid-19 a pandemic, it became
obvious that the world is never going to be the same again. Educators had to
come with an urgent plan on how to deal with school and college closures, and
how to minimize the harm the quarantine may have on the learning process.

When
elaborating a study plan for students with disabilities, the following key
features should be considered:

  • IDEA
    states that all students must have free access to public education during
    the quarantine;
  • Schools
    and colleges should come up with Individual Education Programs (IEP)
    before changing the placements of students. This means shifting to a
    virtual or independent study;
  • Schools
    and colleges that close or move to another instruction must provide
    necessary devices and access for every student; provide free Internet
    access if the families are not able to pay themselves; make sure that
    students have necessary assistive technologies; provide all the required
    services at home;
  • All the
    modifications and accommodations under the 504 Section should still be
    provided;
  • During
    the lockdown, school and college staff must work tightly with students and
    their families to create the most suitable education environment.

The Emerging Crisis

There
are hundreds of millions of students across the US, and all of them are forced
to stay at home during the quarantine. If the virus continues, more and more
schoolers will be forced to remain locked without proper access to education.

Even
though Covid-19 is not dangerous to people of a younger age, many children may
contract the virus and carry it back home to more vulnerable people. Adults at
schools, risk contacting Covid-19 and bringing it further. Thus, closing
schools is one of the ways to stop the spread of the deadly virus.

However,
this decision has its own risks. Students, especially with disabilities, suffer
from a broken schedule, lost interaction with peers and adults, and even a
shortage of food without access to school meals. Many parents or guardians
can’t stay at home to take care of their children because they are afraid to
lose jobs.

Thus, most schools and colleges are thinking of the ways of moving the curriculum online. And the biggest problem is the lack of time for preparation – not many establishments have enough resources for a normal transition to online education. But it’s difficult to come up with solutions, which would meet the needs of all students, especially those with disabilities.

How to Help Disabled Students

Students
with disabilities have the same rights as other students, which is stated in
the IDEA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the ADA. These laws give
disabled students the right to access special education, which adjusts to their
needs and gives necessary modifications and accommodations.

Individualized
Education Programs and Section 504 plans define the needs of every student and
act as a law for the state and schools to implement those services and
programs. But these are only words: what happens when the crisis strikes and
schools and colleges can’t operate in their normal way? Luckily, there are
several precedents, which allow dealing with these closures.

The
most recent example is the H1N1 outbreak in 2009, even though it was rather
limited in terms of geography. Another precedent is Hurricane Katrina, which
caused school closures. But we are witnessing a completely new situation, where
billions of people worldwide are self-isolating.

While
governments and agencies are trying to come up with the best solution for
multiple categories of citizens, they shouldn’t forget about students with
disabilities. Luckily, the IDEA is compulsory, and schools, as well as
colleges, are obliged to follow the requirements.

On
March 12, 2020, the US Department of Education has released guidance for the
current crisis. One of the issues is school closures and their influence on
students. Below we have cited the March 12 guidance:

Section
504 of the IDEA and the ADA Title II don’t address the situation when all
schools and colleges are closed for a long period of time (more than ten days)
because of the urgent nature such as disease outbreak.

If the LEA closes schools and colleges in order to slow down or stop the spread of the COVID-19 and doesn’t provide proper educational services to the student population, then the LEA won’t be required to serve students with disabilities during the same time period. Once the schools and colleges start operating again, the LEA should do everything they can to provide education and specific essay services to the children and teenagers based on the IEP or FAPL based on Section 504 following an educational plan that meets all the necessary requirements.

The
Department knows that there can be circumstances that influence a certain
provided service. In addition, all the services involved, including the IEP
team and FAPE personnel should evaluate whether compensatory services should be
offered.

In
case the LEA continues providing study services to the general students during
the lockdown, the schools and colleges must make sure that disabled students
have access to these services, including the FAPE provision.

LEAs,
SEAs, and educational establishments must make sure that every disabled student
has access to special education and services indicated in student’s individual
plans under the IDEA or any other plan developed on the basis of Section 504.

To
make a conclusion from the cited above, the guidance states that:

  1. The
    corresponding laws don’t state directly how disabled students should study
    during situations when schools and colleges are closed for an unknown
    period of time. Covid-19 pandemic is one of such situations;
  2. If LEA
    can’t provide students with educational services, that it doesn’t have to
    provide special services to disabled students. In such a case, it must
    offer compensatory assistance;
  3. If LEA
    doesn’t provide general students with education during the pandemic, it
    must make sure that disabled students have equal opportunities, including
    FAPE provision.

The
guidelines also discuss circumstances when schools with special education are
closed when students are inflected and can’t addend schools and colleges.
Another discussed issue is that schools include contingency plans to the IEPs.

The
next guidance was issued on March 16 by the Office for Civil Rights of the
Department of Education. It’s called ‘Addressing the risk of Covid-19 at
schools and protecting the civil rights of students’.

This
OCR guidance refers to the same issues as the March 12 guidance but also
explains how IEP meetings must be held during the times when schools and
colleges are closed, and communities need to isolate.

The
guidance says that the IEP teams don’t have to meet in person during the period
of isolation. In case evaluation of a disabled student needs a face-to-face
meeting or observation, it should be delayed until educational establishments
reopen.

Evaluations
that don’t require face-to-face meetings can take place during the lockdown
with the agreement of parents or legal guardians. The same applies to other
activities and measures conducted by corresponding personnel to a disabled
student, who has an individual plan based on Section 504.

This
means that the IEP team can hold a teleconference or use other online methods
of communication to discuss the needs of a disabled student and how they can be
met considering the modern conditions. They should discuss how a student should
act and study during school closures and any lockdowns. The same can also be
applied for the staff implementing plans based in Section 504. If the
evaluation requires a personal meeting and observation, it must be delayed.

How to Educate Disabled Students During the School Closures

As
it was stated above, there are no specific guidelines on how to serve disabled
students during the crisis, so the best approach is considering every available
tool and option. Below we have gathered the most effective measures on how to
educate and not to interrupt the educational process. We encourage all
participants of the process, including parents and educators, to communicate
and cooperate, coming up with the best solution.

1.
Virtual or online education

Many
states advise schools and colleges to give instructions through the internet.
Virtual models include online instructions and blended learning, which includes
elements of a regular classroom and a virtual one. Considering the general
lockdown, which concerns billions of people worldwide, learning online becomes
an attractive alternative. However, the transition to virtual learning may be
quite difficult, especially considering the absence of preparation.

The
main problems are instructional practice, software and hardware, staff
experience, and the time and money to develop virtual education systems.
Schools should be read to provide computers, Internet access, and other devices
for free to students who don’t have enough funds to do that on their own.

IEP
students also have a right to educate together with non-disabled students in
the most appropriate environment that is adjusted to their needs. It should be
remembered that online education may sometimes be difficult for disabled
students.

This
may be true for occupational and physical services, social support, and other
assistance that requires a face-to-face meeting. Another issue is that online
learning systems often require the participation of adults that can assist
disabled students. Unfortunately, parents or family members of a disabled
student may lack enough skills and training to cope with the software and
online study programs.

However,
the problem is not new – online schooling has had difficulties with meeting the
needs of specialized students for years. Luckily, there are several resources
that explain how to face these challenges (but no on the Covid-19 outbreak so
far).

The
most helpful and effective so far is the Center on Online Learning and Students
with Disabilities or COLSD website. It was a work of the Center of Applied
Special Technologies, the University of Kansas, and the National Association of
Special Education.

It
collects multiple reports and gives recommendations on how to help specialized
students and their families to access online programs and use them effectively.

2.
Independent study

Another
way to solve the issue is to utilize independent study programs, which don’t
involve online education. With its help, students can educate using hard copy
materials like printed out books, journals, and other learning sources. No
matter what the format is, disabled students must have access to accommodation
and support. All these requirements should be indicated in the IEP or 504 Plan.

3.
Blended learning

As
you understand from the definition, blended learning is a term, which refers to
an educational method, which combines both virtual and real education.
Considering that Covid-19 made it difficult for students to get an education in
a physical building, regular models of blended education may not be effective.

However,
there is a possibility that schools and colleges can send written and printed
materials to students’ homes. These materials could come along with virtual
elements. Students with disabilities have a right to claim any type of support
that is needed in order to utilize these materials. Blended learning may have
the same challenges as online education has, so when choosing this option,
schools and colleges should make sure they have all the necessary tools and
materials.

4.
504 and IEP teams

After
the closure of educational establishments and the country’s lockdown, it’s
important for the IEP and 504 staff to come up with a vial plan for providing
services to disabled students during these times. This includes highlighting
that home is the best placement during the pandemic and introducing a clear
action plan of what services should be provided remotely and what services –
compensated after the lockdown.

The
crucial part of their work is to evaluate the needs and requirements of
disabled students, which will help to understand the best way of solving the
problem. Keep in mind that IEP and 504 teams don’t have to gather face-to-face
if the issues can be addressed online or through a telephone conference.

5.
Compensatory education

In
some cases, the IDEA allows receiving the required services retroactively for
students with an individual educational plan. This takes place, when
circumstances don’t allow providing services in a regular manner: because the
disabled student is ill or is not able to receive the assistance, or because
the educational establishment failed to deliver the services on time.

Educational authorities must define how many hours of certain services should be provided later to make up for the hours that were missed during the circumstances (Covid-19 pandemic, in this case). For example, students who need personal physical therapy on a regular basis (several times a week) may be awarded a certain number of hours after the quarantine ends.

Unfortunately,
it is quite difficult for a school or another educational establishment to
decide whether it must find a way to deliver certain services in one of the
ways above, or it is possible to postpone the services for later. The decision
should be made during an IEP team gathering, whether online or in person. To
make a proper decision, the person should approach the needs and requirements
of every student with a disability.

If
the Covid-19 continues to evolve, more schools and colleges will have to close
their doors. Thus, the necessity of creating ways to meet the needs and desires
of students, especially those with disabilities, will only increase.

The best decision is to engage all participants: schools, colleges, districts, and networks and come up with a list of experiences and ideas. This will open up more space for innovations and provide a collective decision in favor of students with disabilities.

Remember,
it is crucial for governments and other institutions to come up with a plan on
how to meet the pandemic. This plan should consist of a thoughtful and
proactive approach to protect and support students with disabilities.

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