Distance learning is challenging for students, but kids who have special education needs beyond regular classroom learning are arguably among the most challenged. How can parents ensure that children who need extra help and services from their school district are getting it when they are not attending school in person?
“In 2018–19, the number of students ages 3–21 who received special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was 7.1 million, or 14 percent of all public school students,” according to the Nation Center for Education Statistics.
Catherine Michael, a founding partner at Connell Michael Kerr, is an education attorney who specializes in helping families know their rights when it comes to special education services. She tells Parentology that while many school districts have handled transitioning services virtually, others are struggling.
“Some schools are doing it beautifully. Some school districts we saw really rise to the challenge. We see other school districts who still have not mastered virtual instruction.” The issue, as Michael sees it, is that because education is localized, there is not a nationwide consensus on how services are being provided.
What Parents Can You Do
Students that receive special education services have to undergo an evaluation process that results in an Individual Education Plan (IEP). That IEP indicates what services your child needs and the frequency that they should be provided.
Virtual schooling changes nothing about the scope of those services. Schools are required by law to fulfill a student’s IEP in a way that makes sense for that individual child’s needs. If that is not happening, Michael says parents need to make their concerns known.
“The first thing you want to do as a parent is really document this,” she says. “The parent needs to email, email, email the school.”
She also suggests printing a calendar to keep track of how many hours of educational services your child is actually receiving compared to what they’re scheduled to receive. The school is responsible, according to the Federal Department of Education, to provide compensatory services. Schools are obligated to remedy any lapse in services. That could be additional services provided by the school; however, if the school is not equipped, services could be provided through a private tutoring program as necessary.
Parents must keep track and advocate for their child. While there are laws in place, no one agency or entity is responsible to check on each individual student.
“Parents act as a private attorney general, so to speak. No one else is going to be enforcing this other than the parents. The state department of education isn’t checking in to see what their child needs,” Michael says.
Getting Special Education Services
Is your child struggling but hasn’t been assigned special education services?
Many children may be falling behind because they have an undiagnosed issue. If you have a child who doesn’t have an IEP, know that none of the timelines and guidelines for acquiring one have been suspended. Contact your school to schedule an evaluation that will help you determine if your child is entitled to special services.
“If you think your child may need special education services you need to request that evaluation now,” Michael explains. Parents can also seek a private evaluation if they would like an outside opinion.
Who Can Help?
There are advocates and attorneys who are experts in this field. Michael recommends parents start with research; check the internet to know what rights your child has in your particular state. You can contact your state department of education to see if there are any advocacy groups in your area. Most advocacy groups can lead you to attorneys that are experienced in this field if you need legal representation.
Consulting with an education attorney doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to court. These experts can help you know what your rights are and what logical next steps might be.
Parents should not be worried about fees. Most education attorneys receive all of their compensation from the school districts, not parents. Parents need to understand that there are no monetary damages associated with these cases; the school can easily solve the issue without a legal battle.
Finally, Michael advises parents to advocate for their child without shame.
“Parents need to be reassured to be reassured that it is fine to be assertive and at the same time graceful,” she says. The parents need to go into it knowing that it’s really important to be very, very vocal, and let the school know what their child needs.”