Despite the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, schools must meet their obligations under federal law to identify and serve children with disabilities, the Education Department said in new guidance Tuesday.
“Regardless of the COVID-19 pandemic, or the mode of instruction,” children with disabilities are entitled to a free and appropriate public education, the U.S. Department of Education’s office of special education and rehabilitative services wrote in a letter to state and local educational administrators.
The attached guidance document focused on Child Find, a portion of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that outlines states’ obligations to identify, locate and evaluate all children with disabilities, even those younger than school age and those who do not attend public schools.
Among other things, the guidance notes that schools may use federal COVID-19 relief funding provided through the American Rescue Plan to help address a backlog of evaluations. And schools may need to make extra efforts to locate and identify children who didn’t enroll in the 2020-21 school year to ensure their needs are addressed.
In addition, children with “long COVID” or prolonged post-COVID side effects “such as fatigue, mood changes, or difficulty concentrating” may qualify for special education services if those conditions adversely affect their ability to participate and learn, the guidance says.
The document is the first in a series of Q&A documents the Education Department plans to release on special education in the coming weeks, Katherine Neas, acting assistant secretary of the office of special education and rehabilitative services, wrote. Other documents will cover topics like evaluation, reevaluation, meeting timelines, and providing services, she said.
Advocates say the pandemic has been particularly challenging for students with disabilities as schools strained to provide appropriate services and accommodations during remote learning. They’ve also cautioned that interruptions to in-person learning have given educators fewer opportunities to recognize potential learning disabilities and have led to a backlog in special education evaluations in some districts.
The Education Department’s guidance acknowledges these challenges, and prods schools to act.
“Generally, children who attend virtual schools or, as experienced during the pandemic, receive instruction virtually, do not have the same degree of face-to-face interactions and in-person contacts with a teacher or other school staff as children who attend brick-and-mortar schools on a full-time basis,” the document says. “As such, teachers of these students have limited opportunity for casual observation of a child’s learning abilities and early recognition of issues that may impact their learning.”
In that case, schools should ensure they are relying on more than teacher observations to identify students who may need services, the guidance says.