Continuity of Learning and Special Education During COVID-19

This is a working document, which may be updated frequently due to the rapidly changing response to this pandemic emergency and ongoing Federal guidance updates.

Public and private schools and higher education institutions statewide have suspended in-classroom instruction in accordance with the Governor Mills’ March 15, 2020, recommendation. On March 31, 2020, Governor Mills ordered that all such schools shall continue to cease classroom or other in-person instruction until at least May 1, 2020, or until further Order.

Given this extended period of alternative learning, the Office of Special Services is available to provide guidance and support to educators regarding the implementation of continued educational opportunities and the impact on special education.

All members of our school communities must continue to consider what is appropriate under the current circumstances and reasonable within their resources, to determine what constitutes providing continued educational opportunities, to the greatest extent possible, consistent with state and federal guidance.

The following guidance will address educational opportunities, communication with families and caregivers, IEP team meetings, timelines, annual review/re-evaluation dates, referrals and next steps.

Educational Opportunities
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) does not specifically address a situation in which school-based instruction would be suspended for an extended period due to exceptional circumstances, such as a pandemic emergency.  School Administrative Units (SAUs) must provide a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) consistent with the need to protect the health and safety of students, and those individuals providing education, specialized instruction, and related services to these students.  Present exceptional circumstances may affect how special education and related services are provided, just as it is impacting what a “public education” currently is for all our students. SAUs may not be able to provide all services in the same manner that they are typically provided.  Federal disability law allows for flexibility in determining how to address the individualized needs of students receiving special education services.

Given that school buildings across the state of Maine are not providing school-based instruction, it is essential that SAUs focus on providing continued educational opportunities for all students in alternative ways.  SAUs must ensure that students receiving special education have access to these opportunities.  For students with individualized education programs (IEPs), SAUs must ensure that each student is provided the special education and related services sufficient to meet the intent of the  student’s IEP developed pursuant to the IDEA, to the greatest extent possible, in light of the suspended classroom instruction impacting all our students.

Continued educational opportunities are not required to be determined or documented within the IEP team process, however these opportunities should be individualized based upon the student’s unique needs.

Communication
During this uncertain and difficult time, it is important to maintain positive relationships with families.  Consistent communication and documentation with parents is vital in ensuring that SAUs and parents or guardians collaborate as a team, even though they are not in the same physical location.

When communicating with parents and/or guardians, the Office of Special Services recommends the following:

  • Acknowledge in your communications to all caregivers that either you have a plan for providing equitable access and special education and related services or are developing such a plan.
  • Develop a protocol to communicate proactively with parents, guardians and caregivers regarding their child’s IEP services during alternative instruction taking into consideration the parents’ and guardians preferred method of communication.  This should be done on an individual basis and SAUs should not rely on communications to the general population to provide this information.
  • As soon as possible, notify parents and/or guardians of students with disabilities of your individualized plan for that student to access continued educational opportunities.  Include the input of parents or guardians and the student, as appropriate, when discussing the plan.
  • Allowing parents and/or guardians to provide feedback provides them, and ultimately, students, a voice in the process, rather than simply notifying them of the result.  This communication should be ongoing throughout the implementation of the plan so that the educators delivering and/or overseeing the services can adjust the plan when appropriate.

IEP Team Meetings
During this period of alternative learning, the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) has indicated that if all students are receiving continued educational opportunities (homework packets, continuous learning opportunities, online/virtual learning), SAUs are not required to revise an IEP because all students are receiving an alternate mode of instructional delivery of the general education curriculum.  This would avoid the need to conduct IEP meetings related to the instructional delivery method in those cases and would not constitute a change in placement.  This also allows school staff to focus on the provision of supports and services, rather than engaging in numerous IEP meetings.  If a parent or the SAU wishes to discuss the student’s continued educational opportunity, the parent and SAU have flexibility to use other means of conferring with one another, rather than convening the IEP team for a meeting.

There may be unique instances, however, when a SAU and a parent agree that an IEP team meeting is necessary.  In such cases, the parties may agree to conduct the meeting via an alternate means of meeting participation, such as video conference or conference call.  In determining if an IEP team meeting is necessary please consider the following:

  • The purpose of the IEP team meeting (e.g., Given that there is no requirement to revise IEPs to include remote continued educational opportunities, is having an IEP team meeting necessary? Will holding the meeting affect the continued educational opportunities being provided to the student? etc.).
  • The IEP team membership requirements (e.g., Will each member be available and able to meaningfully participate in the meeting? etc.).
  • Confidentiality and privacy concerns (e.g., If the meeting is being held telephonically or virtually, will each team member have access to a private space? Is the virtual format that you are using secure? etc.).

Please note, if there is a need to change the IEP during alternative instruction, the parent of a child with a disability and the SAU may agree not to convene an IEP meeting for the purpose of making those changes, via an IEP amendment Agreement to Change an Individualized Education Program Without Convening a Planning and Placement Team Meeting.

Timeline Requirements
This is an unprecedented time where the primary focus is the safety of students, families, and educators and allowing staff the time to provide instruction and services to students.  Focusing on those priorities may cause challenges to timeline compliance.  Federal guidance on timelines is forthcoming.

IEP Annual Review/Re-evaluation Dates
Given that schools are not operating as usual for an extended period, SAUs may find it difficult to conduct Annual Reviews and Re-evaluations.  There are no statutory or regulatory provisions that allow extensions of time to conduct these IEP team meetings.  Be reminded however, a parent/adult student may agree in writing that a re-evaluation (i.e., “triennial review”) is not necessary.

If an annual review or re-evaluation date is not met, the school district should hold the IEP team meeting once school resumes.  Missed meeting dates due to school closings related to COVID-19 will not affect the district’s General System of Supervision and Monitoring.  Monitoring activities are currently suspended and will resume based on each SAU’s projected cycle. More information will be provided around monitoring when school-based instruction resumes.

If the effective date of a student’s IEP lapses during the period of alternative learning, the student’s IEP will remain in effect until a new IEP is developed.

Next Steps
As the next steps to protect public health and safety unfold, The Office of Special Services is committed to providing ongoing guidance to support SAUs and families.  SAUs should prepare for the need to individually assess the impact of school closures for their students.

The Office of Special Services has collected information and resources for administrators, teachers and families/caregivers which may be accessed at https://www.maine.gov/doe/learning/specialed/covid19.