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[Educator Network] 5 Current Issues in Special Education

[Educator Network] 5 Current Issues in Special Education

We have all felt the disruption of the last year. While generally all students have had routines interrupted and programs redesigned to meet the new modality of instruction, children who have special services provided are perhaps most affected by that disruption. Parents and educators have had to approach this challenge with creativity, flexibility, and teamwork.

The process in which learners are taught is in swift and complete flux. We see this particularly when it comes to students in special education programs. There are some common themes that have come up this past year in the world of special education.

1. Strengths and Weaknessess of Virtual Learning for All Students

Students that have been identified with special needs under the law, have Individual Education Plans, or IEPs. These are legal contracts between schools and parents or guardians and that set goals for the child and outline the special services to be delivered. Schools must design a plan to deliver these services or use accommodations and get equal access to learning no matter the modality-online or learning at home. For many families, the quick transition from in-person to virtual school wasn’t smooth, and made it difficult not only for students with IEPs, but also introduced new challenges to learning for students who struggled to adapt to class on a computer.

However, it is not all doom and gloom. Virtual learning has proved a success for students who struggle with transitions or anxiety who may benefit from the relatively predictable course of remote learning. The addition of technology to the substance of remote learning has provided supports that might not have been capitalized on in the physical classroom.

The rapid switch to virtual or hybrid learning has changed the educational landscape for both general education and special education students. But we shouldn’t see this as a division; rather, we can look at is a bridge. Now we can really see that the accommodations that special education students require can actually be beneficial to all students.

2. Early Detection/ Intervention

Part C of the IDEA (Individuals With Disabilities Education Act) provides for early intervention services for children under three years old with developmental disabilities, developmental delays or at-risk for developmental delay. Discovering disabilities early in life is nothing new but it is more than simply a labeling game. Early detection of these delays can often be assisted with programs that provide interventions. The Center for Disease Control reports that 11 percent of the children who are served in federally funded early intervention programs (before kindergarten, as young as 24-months) end up not needing any special education in the school years. Despite this, the CDC also reports that the median age for diagnosis of spectrum disorders like autism is older than six. Adding to the struggle is trying to do all this while working virtually or within the critical safety precautions expected. There needs to be a shift in thinking at all levels – from parents to politicians – for children to receive the help they need and improve special education.

These children, already among the most in danger of struggling in their education, are at risk of tumbling further behind by not getting an evaluation or the services that would make a difference in their foundational support.

3. Identification 

The process of assessing students for special services can be lengthy and often requires a stream of assessments including classroom observations, psychological evaluations and academic tests. For the most part, students must be evaluated for IEPs once a parent or guardian request one. The evaluations must start within 45 days of that request and be completed no more than 60 days later. If a student is new to the special education system, the school must evaluate the child within 30 school days, and after another 15 days meet with the child’s family.

Previously, in the event of natural disasters like hurricanes or wild fires, U.S. Department of Education has granted permission for states to delay evaluation timelines if they need to. Advocates and lawyers remind us that the federal government has not significantly reformed the rules governing special education. Due to COVID-19 school closures, educators might have missed opportunities to identify and work with students early. The assessments could not be done in the conventional way. The results of a classroom observation when the classroom is so moved from the typical cannot help but skew the results. Districts struggle with working within this perceived distorted data. The requests for evaluations continue to be submitted but the traditional prosses has come to a halt. Districts have developed backlogs that feel overwhelming and school districts are just now finding ways to work through them.

Many districts are delaying or adjusting the traditional process for these evaluations and erring on the side of caution by providing services and supports with the understanding that the assistance can be universal. Every child will benefit from the additional assistance.

4. Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as a framework for instruction holds a ton of possibilities for online learning and teaching. Universal Design for Learning is a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all students originated in scientific insights of how people learn. The use of resources and digital tools can create a world where learning can be made more accessible, engaging, and effective for K-12 learners with disabilities, whether online or in person. The focus and platform of UDL leverages the student interest and capacity as well as the wide range of resources available to both student and educator. This process is not new but exploring and applying these principles across the populations captures student interest and strengths whether typically or atypically developing.

5. Legal Framework

Most parents have been struggling with the juggling of schoolwork, working from home and the isolation. The parents of special needs children have been overwhelmed. Concerned for the world outside their door as well as providing the right and safe resources for their children.

If a child has an IEP, then by law it is rewritten each year, and the child must be reevaluated every three years to determine whether they’re still eligible for special education. The U.S. DOE has produced a legal guidance on coronavirus and services for students with disabilities, (see a PDF of the guidance) however, these are suggestions and not backed by changes in the law. This means that the overriding expectation goes back to the initial IEP and process. A district can keep the same deadlines for evaluations but complete them remotely. Taking the leap into using this digital format is different, but not ineffective. If in-person observations or tests are needed, then the school may delay the evaluation but not cancel. This is what U.S. DOE recommends in guidance to schools.

Special education covers a range of needs. Of course, students who receive special education are not a uniform group. They range in age from 3 to 22, attending preschool through post-secondary programs. They include students with a wide variety of mild to severe cognitive, physical, social, emotional, and behavioral struggles. This could mean supplying assistive technology tools or other resources. For additional information and explanation, the U.S. DOE has provided this seven-minute webinar on accessibility and online education.

A primary concern needs to be compliance with COVID-19 guidelines, but what about the services students might be missing? Generally, a student has the right to compensatory services if there’s a denial of a free appropriate public education. If a school completely halted services throughout the pandemic, there is a strong argument for compensatory services.

However, if a school did its best to provide appropriate services, but the services were not exactly what the IEP called for, the law is not as cut and dry. It might be years until we know this outcome as cases move their way through the courts. Which, by the way, are managing the best they can through this as well.

So now that we’ve addressed the mere tip of the iceberg, let’s not forget about how much more lies below the surface. Nothing about this is ever easy, but tack on a pandemic and wholesale changes in the way we teach, well, that just makes thing more interesting. Grace and growth mindset will help in navigating the waters around the iceberg. 

Looking for ways to better provide instruction for students with disabilities as they’re learning from home? Check out our recorded webinar that unpacks how several of Edmentum’s programs can support the SPED-identified learner.