Federal law has always allowed for remote meetings to review and approve students’ Individualized Education Programs, the carefully constructed plans designed to meet the educational needs of children with learning and physical disabilities, but coronavirus school shutdowns made such meetings a necessity.
Figuring out how to manage the meetings from afar and agreeing on what services students are entitled to in an online learning environment emerged as one of the many challenges for families of special education students and the teachers who serve them.
In response to requests for help from educators and parents, a group of U.S. Department of Education-backed organizations developed a six-step guide to hosting and participating in virtual IEP meetings, with the acknowledgement that conducting the meetings may happen more often now, even after students return to brick-and-mortar schools. Designed for a 60-minute meeting, the infographic provides a sample agenda and tips on how to keep meetings focused and on-schedule.
To learn more about the project, Education Week interviewed Tessie Rose Bailey, the project director of the PROGRESS Center, one of the organizations that helped develop the guide. Funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs and housed at the American Institutes for Research, the center develops programs and tools to ensure students with disabilities have access to a free, appropriate public education.
Questions and answers from the interview have been edited for length and clarity:
Education Week: Will teachers still conduct virtual IEP meetings when brick-and-mortar schools reopen?
Bailey: This ability to do virtual IEPs has been available. We have found that some districts have policies that try to prevent the use of a virtual IEP. They claim it’s for security reasons, or they’re just concerned about parent participation. But, in reality, parents actually are more likely to participate when it’s done virtually. A lot of parents are appreciating this virtual participation right now because they can take an hour at their lunch break, participate in the IEP meeting, not miss a day of work where they would have previously had to take off and go into the school.
Education Week: Did the development of the virtual IEP agenda begin before the spread of the coronavirus forced schools to close?
Bailey: It did not. It started with questions being sent to us from districts and we had to remind them that they already had this option. They can use virtual meeting software. They can actually conduct it via phone. That’s always been an option in many places. So, it was more of us just reminding folks. Once we realized that folks didn’t feel comfortable, didn’t really know how to do it, then that’s what prompted us to develop the tool.
A part of our center’s work is to run focus groups with families. We engage with other centers to really help us understand what families need and what educators need to improve the outcomes for students with disabilities. We’re focusing on all disability categories, from kindergarten to transition age. And so we’re really trying to determine the key things that need to happen, both between educators and families, to ensure students are successful.
Education Week: What sort of feedback have you received?
Bailey: What we are finding, and not just with virtual IEPs but with virtual instruction, is that people just aren’t familiar with ways to effectively engage people. And that’s what really prompted the development of the tool is to support educators in effectively engaging parents, as well as building the capacity of parents to really participate in that, not just be a passive participant.
Some states or some districts were already attempting to do this, but what we have found is that having a systematic agenda is really powerful for folks because a lot of times they would move into the IEP meeting in a more informal way. But the virtual environment forces us to be clear about what’s coming. The written agenda helps facilitate the movement through the process much more effectively. A single page is more about building awareness. They still need training on how to go about facilitating the IEP meeting whether it’s virtual or face to face [and training] on developing the IEP itself.
Here’s a look at the guide:
Image Credit: Getty Images
A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.