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How We Can Promote Continuity in Special Education Programs During the COVID-19 Pandemic

I never imagined I would be graduating with my master’s degree during a deadly, global pandemic. Missing out on my commencement ceremony and having to reschedule our family vacation because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pales in comparison to the disruption of America’s education system, the exponential threat to our healthcare system and economy, and the rising death toll from COVID-19.

Schools across America have been closed for three weeks now due to social distancing measures, and many are speculating whether students will be able to return to school when the new academic year begins in the fall. Something I have also considered, as a graduate student pursuing a career in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), is that many providers of ABA are having to make the tough decision whether to continue, suspend, or transition services to telehealth for their clients. Focusing on continuity of learning and continuity of care are two of the biggest challenges in the disability community during this unprecedented time.

Special Education and COVID-19

I’ve been following the discussion on COVID-19 and its dramatic impact on special education. I am currently enrolled in a course called¬†Autism and the Law, and my professor, Dan Unumb (attorney and founder of¬†Autism Legal Resource Center) invited his colleague Shannon O’Connor to talk to our class about¬†challenges parents face homeschooling (or crisis schooling) their children with disabilities, and what schools are legally required to provide.¬†O’Connor explained that if a state or local education agency (school district, county school board, etc.) has deemed that a school and/or school district needs to close, but is still to provide remote education to its general education population, then the school and/or school district must also continue to provide education services remotely to its special education population.

O’Connor also shared that many parents of children with disabilities have not received sufficient information, resources or support for remote learning. Many students in special education programs who have autism or other disabilities also receive speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, ABA, and other essential services at school, as outlined in their Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or 504 Plan. Therefore, schools and educators are legally required to put a plan in place to provide compensatory services and remediation for any skills that are lost during the time they are not in school.

An additional concern is the coronavirus stimulus bill President Donald Trump signed into law last week. This bill allows Betsy DeVos, Education Secretary, the power to seek congressional approval to waive certain federal special education laws such as how IEPs are carried out, timelines for evaluations, and legal complaints that arise. Some are concerned that this waiver could also affect entitlements children with disabilities currently benefit from under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), such as access to Early Childhood Intervention (ECI) and free and appropriate public education. The lack of clarity from the U.S. Department of Education regarding what could potentially be waived, and provisions for ensuring an end date to all waivers is unsettling.

As a Parent and Advocate

My 3-year-old has developmental disabilities and attends an ECI program at a public school for children with disabilities. His teacher contacted me this week to set up a time to develop an Individualized Continuity of Learning Plan (ICLP). She described it as an (optional) amendment to his existing IEP to outline goals, outcomes, objectives, and strategies to work on at home until students are able to return to school. Still, my son is missing out on essential services such as one-on-one physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy that are provided at school. With no end date in sight, I too share the sentiments of many parents, especially those who are having to navigate this uncharted territory for their children who have disabilities.

Additionally, I am trying to ensure that my third-grader and my first-grader have the necessary and appropriate support for distance learning. Our local school district is rolling out more formal guidelines next week. In the meantime, I have been trying to implement a healthy balance of school and free time activities at home, so their academic, as well as their emotional needs, are being met during this disruptive time.

ABA and COVID-19

I’ve also been following discussions in the ABA community, and the biggest challenges in the field as it relates to the new coronavirus are ensuring continuity of care and risk mitigation. Researchers Matt Broadhead, David J. Cox and Josh Plavnick touched on this issue in a paper titled “Proposed Process for Risk Mitigation During the COVID-19 Pandemic.”

One of the main takeaways from the article is that ABA providers should temporarily transition to telehealth. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently mandated that telehealth ABA services be reimbursed via health insurance companies, so this puts ABA providers in a unique position to supports its clients during this crisis. In order to best serve ABA clients with telehealth, additional training and/or supervision may be required. A lack of competence in telehealth, however, still does not justify continued in-person service delivery during this time of social distancing and while stay at home orders are in effect. The Council for Autism Service Providers has an online database with resources for delivering ABA services via telehealth.

Furthermore, if technology barriers exist, then ABA providers should make reasonable attempts to build the necessary infrastructure as quickly as possible to ensure continuity of care for its clients. If the barriers to telehealth are behavioral, then ongoing informed consent that includes the potential risks associated with in-person delivery must be obtained before services continue.¬†Ultimately,¬†decisions to stop, continue or transition ABA services should be made on a client-by-client basis. Providers should reevaluate the needs of each client regularly via ‚Äúongoing, thorough and careful risk assessments‚ÄĚ and in accordance with local, state, and federal laws for social distancing, according to the article.

What Next

It’s too early to measure the far-reaching consequences of COVID-19 on our economy, healthcare system and education system. This situation is obviously very fluid, and I suspect that over the next several weeks we will continue to see changes being implemented across the nation as the world grapples with this crisis. As parents, advocates, educators and leaders in the special education community, we can and should focus on continuity of learning and continuity of care. I believe the¬†way a society views health and well-being determines how far it will go to maximize positive outcomes.

For more on parenting during quarantine, check out the following stories from our community:

Getty photo by Monkey Business Images.