When the Northshore School District in Washington state closed all its schools last week out of concerns over the new coronavirus, district officials promised they’d support their students with disabilities as schools moved all lessons online.

School leaders distributed thousands of laptops and WiFi hotspots to students and urged parents of students with disabilities to share concerns and questions. Still, the switch has proved difficult for some parents — something the district says it’s working to address.

“Unless one of us is sitting with him the whole time, he’s not getting much of an education,” one parent, whose 6-year-old has a disability and found it difficult to concentrate on the online lessons, told The Seattle Times earlier this week.

This situation is likely to become more common as more schools weigh whether to close, and what kind of instruction, if any, to provide while schools are shuttered. 

On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Education told K-12 districts that if they close due to COVID-19 and continue to offer instruction remotely they must make that accessible to students with disabilities — something many advocates say will be difficult to do quickly and for students with a wide range of disabilities.

Those challenges have some disability rights advocates suggesting a better solution would be to make up the time later, rather than scrambling to figure out how to make remote instruction work for students with disabilities.

“I’m very, very concerned because when these school closures become a nationwide issue … this population will just regress,” said Chris Yun, an education policy analyst at Access Living, a Chicago-based disability rights group. Another way to do it, she said, would be for a district to proactively consider extending the school year or offering summer school. 

At least one state has cautioned districts about turning to remote learning because of the equity issues that choice could create.

“For most of you, it will likely make more sense to cancel school and/or district services and make up or waive missed days than to deploy a distance learning model that can be accessed by some, but not all, of your students,” Washington state education officials wrote to superintendents and principals earlier this month. (Today, Washington’s governor announced all private and public K-12 schools in three counties would be closed from next week until the end of April.)

And other education groups have moved quickly to remind districts of their obligations to students with disabilities. 

“As educators scramble to find ways to deal with this sudden crisis and to serve families and students as best they can despite the turmoil, the education of students with disabilities must not be forgotten,” the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools wrote in a post published Thursday. “Again, such services under IDEA are not optional.” 

The guidance the federal education department issued to K-12 schools Thursday noted that if districts close schools entirely “to slow or stop the spread of COVID-19,” then officials are not required to provide services to students with disabilities during that time. Once schools reopened, it would be up to special education teams to determine if students with disabilities who missed services are entitled to make them up. 

But if districts close school buildings but continue to provide instruction, they must ensure students with disabilities have equal access. They also need to make sure students receive the services outlined in their special education or medical plans “to the greatest extent possible.” Options include providing special education or related services “at an alternate location” or offering instruction by phone and online. 

“Sure, it could work for some kids, I just have my reservations on saying it’s going to work for all kids,” said Jen Cole, who provides assistance to parents of students with disabilities through a Washington-based nonprofit. “It’s hard to imagine that one way of delivering remote learning can meet those varied needs, including students who are deaf or hard of hearing, students who have visual impairments, students who have multiple disabilities.”

Special education advocates are advising parents of students with disabilities to start talking with their children’s teachers or schools about a contingency plan as soon as possible, though they say that districts and state education agencies need to be proactive, too. 

Yun, in Chicago, said she was disappointed when Illinois education officials recently told districts to come up with e-learning plans without providing much information about how that would affect students with disabilities.

“Is it helpful to school districts? No, not at all,” Yun said. “It’s good to mention that e-learning services should be accessible to students with disabilities. But how is the question.” (On Thursday, the state issued some additional guidance that said it recognized e-learning wouldn’t work for all students, and that it may be necessary to consider alternatives.)

Schools have certainly made accommodations for students with special education needs working remotely in the past. But they usually have more time to plan. 

A few districts in Illinois that have piloted e-learning days illustrate how that kind of advance planning can work. One district noted that its students in life skills and transitions programs were sent home with hard copies of assignments. Another district sent e-learning binders home with special education students with severe and profound disabilities that included instructional materials specifically designed for those students by their special education case manager or teacher.

Meanwhile, districts now trying to quickly ramp up online learning are scrambling just to get teachers trained in how to use new software.

In New Mexico, principals and teachers in Farmington Municipal Schools recently got a “crash course” in how to use an online platform to send and receive assignments from students.

“This has just been an ‘Oh boy, we’ve got to try to roll something up really fast,’” said Robert Emerson, the district’s chief technology officer. “So we just did very basic stuff. We didn’t focus on how would you do something different for special education students.”

Those are gaps the district hopes it can address before any possible school shutdowns. Already, teachers have been asking questions, Emerson said.

“A lot of our schools have a class with really high special needs kids and they can’t even use the computers, so you’re not going to deliver online education that way,” he said. “It’s a real challenge.”

In Chicago, where a high school for students with complex disabilities recently closed after an aide tested positive for the new virus, students have been out of school for four days and have been advised to self-quarantine until March 18.

The closure has been hard for parent Rose McDonough and her 21-year-old son, who has autism and would normally be receiving life skills education at the school. He misses his routine and getting to work the jobs he’d normally be doing at a local elementary school, his local church, and Habitat for Humanity.

McDonough said her son’s teacher called to check in, but because his school closed so quickly, there wasn’t much time to come up with learning alternatives. So McDonough has been coming up with ways to keep her son practicing his skills on her own. 

She’s asking him to do hands-on activities like make the bed, put away laundry, and set food out. But she admits frustration is already setting in.

“How many games of UNO and board games can we do?” she asked.

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