Most North Carolina schools welcomed students back to in-person learning this week. The goal is to get children back in the classroom for something as close to a “normal year” as possible. However, with the Delta variant spreading, there are still many unknowns about what the 2021-22 school year will look like.
Governor Cooper and the NC Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) are recommending that all students and staff in K-12 schools wear masks regardless of vaccine status. However, the decision about whether to require masks is up to individual school districts.
The statewide mask mandate expired at the end of July and has not been extended. DHHS updated their guidance on masks on July 21, 2021, and outlined their recommendations in the StrongSchools NC Public Health Toolkit. The toolkit, which aligns with CDC guidance for COVID prevention in schools, has been approved by the NC State Board of Education. It includes strategies that school districts should implement.
However, at this time these guidelines are not mandates. They are recommendations to help county and local school boards make their own decisions about what safety precautions to put in place when children return to school.
Some of the toolkit recommendations for districts:
- All children and staff in K-12 schools should wear a face covering consistently when indoors and on school transportation, regardless of vaccine status.
- Students and staff should also socially distance within the school setting:
- A minimum of three (3) feet of distance between K-12 students who are not fully vaccinated,
- A minimum of six (6) feet between adults and students and between adults who are not fully vaccinated.
The toolkit also includes recommendations about how to respond to suspected or confirmed cases of COVID, and suggests policies for high-risk teachers and students.
Unlike last year, school districts do not have to offer a virtual learning option. But some districts are still choosing to offer a virtual academy. In fact, 52 of the state’s 115 traditional school districts have decided to offer one or more virtual academies. Some districts simply do not have the staff to offer a complete virtual school. However, they may still have virtual accommodations for students with documented medical conditions.
Preparing for the transition back to school
Many children never stepped foot in a classroom last school year. As a result, the 2021-22 school year is going to be a transition for all children, with and without disabilities. It is reasonable to expect that this transition may be difficult for many children. Some children may have challenging behaviors.
DRNC’s Behavior Packet discusses school districts’ obligations to provide behavior supports to children who have challenging behaviors that interfere with their learning or the learning of others. If a child has challenging behaviors in school, they may need a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) and Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP). We explain these in more detail in the packet.
Additionally, a school district may suggest that your child should have a shortened (or modified) school day schedule to “assist” with the transition back to school. They may argue this will “ease” them back into the classroom. This option is only appropriate for a small number of children. It should not be the default. Children have a right to be at school for a full day and a modified day is highly restrictive.
According to the NC Department of Public Instruction (DPI), a modified day is a partial homebound placement. It is highly restrictive because it segregates children with disabilities and isolates them from their peers, educators, and the learning environment. Before a child with a disability can be placed on a modified day, their IEP Team must decide that a partial homebound placement is the least restrictive environment for the child. In other words, it should only be considered as a last resort if the child has been unable to transition back to school, even with an appropriate BIP and other behavior supports in place.
To comply with state and federal laws, any modified day schedule should be temporary, and there should be a clear plan for transitioning the child back to a full day of school that does not require them to earn their way back.
Please refer to DRNC and NC DPI’s joint Guidance for Homebound and Modified Day Placements for more information about rights and best practices around homebound and modified day.
Rights during school closures
Getting children safely back to in-person learning is the priority. However, we don’t know what will happen with the pandemic and this next school year. It is good to be prepared for the possibility of school building closures and remote instruction.
Remember, the laws protecting the rights of special education students still apply during school building closures. School districts must provide a free, appropriate public education (“FAPE”) to children with disabilities.
Even if school buildings are closed, schools must still meet the individual needs of each student with an IEP or 504 Plan. The services provided may look different than when schools are open. It might include additional written materials, instruction or related services. Services might be provided online, through video calls, or by phone.
Accommodations and modifications
Many accommodations and modifications can still be provided during remote learning, including:
- Extended time to complete assignments
- Videos that include either captioning or sign language
- Reading materials in more accessible formats
- Related services, such as counseling and speech therapy, provided through video calls or by phone
- Modified curriculum to meet the needs of an individual student
- Direct instruction from a special education teacher for a short period each day, for students who have “resource” as part of their IEPs
In the event of school building closures, school districts should still have special education teachers working with general education teachers to modify lessons and meet the needs of each student. Instruction must be accessible to each student, regardless of their disability.
Additionally, all students must have equal access to materials, whether written or online. This means that either the materials need to be made accessible to the student or the student needs an alternative way to access them. For example, if a teacher has a student who is blind and cannot access written materials, the school could provide the child access to a screen reader or other assistive technology, or the teacher could call the student to provide the information verbally.
Some accommodations and modifications will have to be adjusted during remote learning. Students who receive behavior supports should have appropriate school staff check in with them and/or their parent. Parents might need training. However, remember that it is okay to be flexible. It might not be possible to safely provide certain services. Parents and school districts need to work together during this time.
Some children with disabilities can’t access virtual instruction regardless of the way it is delivered. In those situations, parents can ask for the school staff to provide in-person instruction in a COVID–safe environment. If the school refuses to do that, the child will be entitled to compensatory education services when schools resume in-person instruction.
Learn more about supporting students with disabilities in virtual learning.
Virtual IEP meetings
Schools can hold IEP meetings virtually, either by phone or a video call. In the event of school closure, school districts and parents should work together to schedule essential IEP meetings. If you are unable to access the technology required to video conference, let the school know. School districts must hold meetings in a way that parents can meaningfully participate. Parents and school staff might have to be flexible when it comes to scheduling and rescheduling IEP meetings during a period of school closure.
Tips for virtual IEP meetings.
If your child missed or misses instruction and services due to school closures or remote instruction, they may be entitled to compensatory education. Districts will determine this individually, case by case. DRNC suggests that parents keep track of all services their child received and missed in order to hold the school accountable for any missed services. If students without disabilities are receiving remote learning, a school district cannot refuse to provide special education. They cannot simply offer compensatory education in the future instead.
When determining if compensatory education is appropriate, at a minimum, parents and educators should look at the following:
- Did the student receive instruction and related services during the school closure?
- Were other students receiving instruction, including general education students?
- Is there accurate documentation of the services the student received?
- Did the student regress in skills as a result of the missed instruction?
Remember, flexibility is permitted when necessary. It may take time for a school district to set up remote learning. It is important for school staff and parents to work together.