How To Legally Protect Yourself and District From Special Education Litigation During Social Distancing and Quarantine

Here’s the big question for special education: Is it legal to have students and teachers quarantined and not provide special education services? Well, technically no. The IEP team signed a legal contract that said, a specific person will provide specific services, in a specific place, and during a specified time. However, legal precedent shows us that unknown events and acts of God are reasons to provide flexibility on contractual agreements. This flexibility is currently happening in our country towards rent, mortgage payments, student loans, state tests, college classes, etc. The current pandemic is unprecedented. We weren’t ready for this. So now, we have to do whatever makes the most sense to help our world, our country, and our individual students.

The Most Safe Way To Legally Protect The School District

If you have the time, and you know you are out of a brick and mortar building for the rest of the school year, the safest option for the district and teachers is to hold another IEP meeting (digitally or via telephone), and then rewrite the IEP to meet the current needs of the pandemic. Then once we have returned to brick and mortar, we would meet again to redo the IEP. This could potentially lead to parents feeling more stressed because it appears that all supports are gone. But it is legally correct. Check out my following option if you want a softer option for parents.

For re-evaluations and testing, I would place them on hold. A parent could potentially sue the school district for not up holding child find laws and evaluating their child within 90 days of suspecting a disability. However, part of the special education process is to determine if, with adequate instruction, the student still requires special education services to access the content. I personally would not feel comfortable making the decision that adequate instruction has occurred when curriculum has been reduced, changed, modified, kids are suddenly at home, parents are anxious, etc. Plus I don’t even know if testing would be considered valid if it was administered digitally. If school districts communicate this with parents, and document their reasoning, it should be defensible in court.

The Next Best Option (and probably most practical)

The most practical thing a district can do is to have the IEP team meet and write an addendum to each IEP. Basically it would just spell out how the IEP would modify until each state and county are out of the stay-at-home orders. This would allow teachers to protect themselves, give parents and chance to ask questions, and for the team to set up a plan going forward.

Since an addendum doesn’t have a set format, make sure you include:

  • Why the addendum is being written.
  • How long this addendum will be valid. (For example: Until governor has lifted the request for schools to be remote.)
  • Where the student will have services performed. (at home)
  • That parents are dual service providers with the school until the order is lifted.
  • What the parent’s responsibilities will be. (list these out specifically: read given materials 3 times a week, practice sentences once a week, be present for phone call every friday, etc.)
  • What the teacher’s responsibilities will be. (provide reading materials, be available for questions via _______, be present for weekly phone call at ________, skype every Thursday at 9 for in person services, provide behavior plan, etc.)
  • What accommodations will be provided for the student at home. (reduced work load, no testing, differentiated assignments, etc.)
  • Will progress reports be completed as usual? How will progress be monitored, if at all. (However, I still would do my best to do this. Be creative. Have the student read over the phone, send worksheet to complete, etc.)
  • Write what will occur when the school is back in brick and mortar. (IEP will resume as usual, student will ease into special education services again, student will add 20 minutes each 5 days until we are back up to 100% services)
Photo by Michael Morse from Pexels

Things To Consider To Help Families

  • Parents with high need kids are going to be panicked. How will their student catch up from this lost time? How are they going to stay together for weeks without any breaks or help? Are they going to be able to get health care for their child? Your job as the professional is to listen and respond appropriately. Be practical, but empathic. You can’t stop the pandemic, but you can be a support.
  • Reduce your expectations. This is wild for everyone. During periods of crisis, it is difficult to retain new information. Focus on not loosing ground, rather than introducing new concepts.
  • BUT you are still supposed to be providing specialized instruction. So specialize it. Reach out. Help. From a distance of course. Here’s an article on some ways to do that.
  • Send out messages to families who are in the special education process and explain what is going to happen. (i.e. paused until school resumes.) Explain why testing now would provide in accurate results.
  • Communicate frequently with families in special education. This will do more to protect you from litigation than anything else. AND DOCUMENT ALL OF IT.
  • Think of ways you support behavior while learning. Then give those ideas to parents. If you use a behavior chart, send a copy for parents. If you give breaks, tell parents that too.

Keep It Up

There really aren’t rules on what is right and wrong in this situation. But, following legal precedent and the current laws can help guide you in the right direction. Keep up your positivity. You can do this. We all can if we work together.

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