The 2020-21 school year has already seen unprecedented expectations placed on school district administrators and educators nationwide – a trend which will likely continue until the pandemic is managed.
Over the summer, state education agencies required local school districts to create “re-entry plans” to outline how students can safely and equitably return to school in multiple learning environments. These plans are often chock full of implementation supports for the majority of students, but offer little to no support on the unique needs of students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). In some states, boards of health have offered specific considerations for students with disabilities. However, in many others, that may not be the case.
The reality is that teachers and school leaders are not doctors or scientists, and they should not be expected to have expertise in the spread of infectious diseases. In the absence of specific guidance supporting the implementation of special education during reentry, it is important to be making informed decisions on the nuances specific to providing students with IEPs a free and appropriate education. Hence, it is important that districts create COVID-19 Special Education Steering Committees.
Whether instruction will be fully virtual, a hybrid of remote and in-person, or fully in-person, in order to provide the most effective special education programming given these unique circumstances, districts should prioritize the creation of said committees. Each COVID-19 Special Education Steering Committee would oversee the development of and adherence to health and safety procedures as well as instructional considerations that are informed, specific, and targeted for special education implementation within the district.
Now, let’s explore who should comprise your district’s COVID-19 Special Education Steering Committee.
COVID-19 Special Education Steering Committee
My team and I recently developed and published a free detailed checklist outlining actionable steps to help special education departments prepare for the 2020-21 school year amid the pandemic. One of the key recommendations within that checklist is the creation of a COVID-19 Special Education Steering Committee.
Because the needs of students with disabilities are complex, especially during a global pandemic, we recommend the following constituencies participate in this committee:
• District Physician and Local Board of Health: The fluid nature of the pandemic requires decisions rooted in science, with guidance and support from local medical experts.
• Children with disabilities may be in situations that create increased risk for themselves and staff – e.g., the close proximity of staff to students in learning, hygiene, toileting, de-escalation, restraint.
• Special Education Legal Counsel and/or Board Counsel: Students with disabilities and their parents are afforded special rights through IDEA, state laws, and regulations. When done with limited information and foresight, policy implementation decisions for special education made during the COVID-19 emergency may have downstream legal implications for the district.
• Special Education Director: The Director, through Supervisors and Case Managers, is aware of the unique circumstances for children in the district. They know their programs and are in positions to ensure the district offers a continuum of services for students with disabilities.
• Building Leadership: The Principals and Assistant Principals know the insides of their buildings as well as all the staff. They play a critical role in supporting the unique space needs that students with disabilities may have as it relates to instruction, related services, and behavioral needs.
• School Nurse: The building-based nurse is the first line of defense when a medical issue arises in a building. At the building level, he or she is likely the most trained in dealing with the containment of infectious disease. They also interact with students with disabilities, both after physical restraint as well as medication administration.
• Educator Representation: Having special education teachers from programs that require specific, special considerations may be useful in providing illustrative examples in how the guidance will come into play on-the-ground.
The 2020-21 school year will likely bring unexpected challenges for which there is no playbook. Ensuring that the school district’s most vulnerable population has the supports it needs to be successful will not be easy. This year will necessitate educators to follow the Scout motto: “Be Prepared.”
To help in being prepared for this significant undertaking, the COVID-19 Special Education Steering Committee can play a pivotal role in supporting the implementation of newly established COVID-19 established policies and practices that may pose significant challenges to special education programs as well as the educators and administrators who support them.
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