Government Study: Schools Get Creative but Struggle to Fulfill IEPs During Shutdowns

Published December 11, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic and school shutdowns have created new challenges for nearly all educators and students, and their families. This is especially true in the realm of special education. Each public school student who receives special education services is required to have an individualized education program (IEP) that outlines their instruction, goals, services, and more. According to a new government study (PDF), fulfilling children’s IEP’s during remote learning has proved difficult, especially when it comes to programs like occupational, physical, and speech therapy, which are usually provided by highly-trained, licensed professionals in school settings.

The research was conducted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) as part of its responsibilities under the CARES federal COVID-19 relief package. It involved investigations into the distance-learning plans of 15 school districts with high proportions of either students with disabilities or English learners. Both of these groups receive special learning supports and face persistent achievement gaps. Government researchers also interviewed district officials as well as advocates, researchers, members of national organizations of administrators, and others. The study focused on the spring of the 2019–2020 school year. While many districts are carrying out innovative strategies to fulfill legally-binding IEPs, most appear to still struggle.

Barriers to IEP fulfillment

Students in special education programs have a wide variety of needs and receive an equally diverse range of services. These may include specialized instructional support; transportation and mobility assistance; speech, occupational, and physical therapy; interpreting, psychological, and social services; recreational opportunities; and school nurse care, among others. Not surprisingly, parents and other caregivers can struggle to provide these complex programs for their children in a home setting.

If a parent works away from home or lacks schedule flexibility in remote work, or if the household doesn’t have adequate technological connectivity, the challenges are deepened. Distance learning is often virtual, and many therapies involve equipment that most families do not own.

Scheduling both general and special education hours during a shortened school day is another difficulty schools have had to overcome. General and special education teachers are working together to adjust their assignments and ensure students do not receive an unreasonable workload in each remote learning day. This is one of many areas where general and special educators, and families have entered into increased collaboration and creative problem-solving to serve students.

Creative solutions for IEP fulfillment

General education teachers, special education teachers and caregivers have partnered to help parents better support students during shutdowns. The recent report found many parents have been remotely trained to provide at-home versions of speech and occupational therapy. In some cases, equipment was delivered to their homes. "Representatives from two advocacy groups told us that it is beneficial to have family engagement, but that providing students with the services they need remains an ongoing challenge," the study’s authors state.

Some schools also put adjusted, temporary IEPs in place. In March, guidance from the Department of Education (PDF) stated that IEP teams could implement distance-learning plans during the COVID-19 outbreak. Some school districts reviewed in the report did add temporary distance-learning plans to students’ IEPs. Eight of the 15 districts noted "goals and activities of existing IEPs would be modified with manageable goals, given the logistics of the new learning environment."

One positive takeaway from this study was the beneficial nature of virtual IEP meetings. The online format often allowed caregivers to take part more easily and, at times, led to more adults (such as both parents) attending the meeting from work or home. Officials from one district "now expect that virtual IEP meetings are the way of the future," according to the study. Also, some students with IEPs, like those with social anxiety, can reportedly focus better in remote learning setups.

There are undoubtedly many valuable lessons being learned at this time that will inform future distance and on-site education for students with and without disabilities. But students in special education and the adults that support them face many obstacles at this time. As the study states, the shift to remote learning "laid bare both the logistical and instructional challenges of distance learning, particularly for English learners and students with disabilities, both of whom have faced persistent achievement gaps." Of course, students who are both English learners and have a disability are likely to face compounded barriers during school closures.

For more tips on fulfilling IEPs remotely, such as take-home kits and sensory breaks, read 5 Ways Schools Can Meet an IEP's Requirements through Distance Learning.