Compensatory services have always been a huge undertaking for school districts. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, schools have struggled with getting special education students all the service minutes on their IEPs. But now it seems as though educators are facing the Mt. Everest of tasks - making up for services lost due to school closures ON TOP OF the regular compensatory minutes already due to students. From a best practice standpoint (let us be clear, we aren’t lawyers!), let’s get some things straight so there’s a clear path to achieving this massive goal.
Post-COVID compensatory services won’t look different from traditional services in quality, but rather in quantity needed.
So what does that quantity look like for schools? It may be different than you’d expect. The amount of compensatory services needed will depend upon the regression of each individual student’s skills due to extended school closures. In determining compensatory education services, local education agencies (LEAs) and state education agencies (SEAs) should employ a qualitative approach that is intended to place a student in the same position they would have been in if free and public education (FAPE) had been provided, rather than calculating the award to account for the exact amount of service minutes identified on the individualized education program (IEP).
The Honorable Dr. Robert Pasternak, a former Assistant Secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services at the U.S. Department of Education, says that regression of skills is inevitable when students have prolonged absences from school.
“We know that the summer learning loss, the summer slide, is something that's been very well documented for a very long time. So we know that when kids are out of school, even for that short amount of time, we see regression in their skills. And this is a time when the pandemic and extended absence from school has created more of a demand for compensatory services than we have ever seen in the past,” says Pasternack.
Schools do not necessarily have to make up for every moment of special education services missed during pandemic school closures.
Perhaps the most daunting part of the massive task of getting compensatory services for students in special education is the idea that schools must provide make-up instruction minutes for each moment missed when schools were closed. This is not necessarily the case. Post-COVID compensatory services must remedy the loss of skills or regression as a result of extended school closures and disruptions to in-person instruction, circumstances caused by the pandemic that are beyond the control of schools.
Additionally, if an LEA closes at schools to slow or stop the spread of COVID, and does not provide any educational services to the general student population, then the LEA would not be required to provide services to students with disabilities during that same period of time. Similarly, if an LEA continues to provide educational opportunities to the general student population during a school closure, the school must ensure that students with disabilities also have equal access to the same opportunities, including the provision of FAPE. What happens with the general education population goes for special education as well.
Once school resumes, the LEA must make every effort to provide special education and related services to the child in accordance with the child’s individualized education program (IEP) or, for students entitled to FAPE under Section 504, consistent with a plan developed to meet the requirements of Section 504.
Determinations for compensatory services must be individualized to each student.
Let’s let that word sink in here. Individualized. We have already pointed out that school districts must make individualized determinations as to whether a particular student has lost or regressed in skills. The key to making these determinations is:
- to assess each student’s rate of progression on IEP goals prior to school closure or disruptions and,
- the difference between IEP progress monitoring data immediately preceding the closure or disruption, and IEP progress monitoring data collected a reasonable time after the return to in-person instruction
Dr. Pasternack adds, “You want to look at the difference between services identified on the IEP, and services offered during the closure disruption; including the amount, frequency, duration type, its delivery model, and the accessibility of services offered to the student when your schools have been closed.”
Collecting this student-specific information should include parental involvement and input. Parental input will be useful for evaluating student performance during the suspension of in-person instruction and the need, amount, and delivery of compensatory education services. Dr. Pasternack advises that partnering with parents instead of having adversarial relationships with them, is critical.
“Our belief is that parents are the true experts on their kids. They know more about their kids than anybody else. We have to be resources, allies, partners and consultants to parents and families and caregivers,” he says.
Recouping these lost or regressed skills will take some creativity, innovation and open-mindedness.
The same old way of providing these services might not be as effective when adding post-COVID considerations. Parents and schools are encouraged to consider creative and innovative ways to address regression or loss of skills. Compensatory services may be provided during the regular school day, over school breaks in intensive targeted individualized programs, by one-on-one instruction, by tutoring, and by outside service providers.
Virtual learning has been a controversial topic across the country since the start of the pandemic. Many argue that some students, especially some students with disabilities, experience difficulty in benefitting from virtual learning. They may have a hard time sitting in front of a computer for prolonged periods of time, or have difficulty connecting with the material being presented. But for others, virtual learning and teletherapy could provide the bridge these students need to regain lost skills. Dr. Pasternack advocates the careful consideration of each student’s individual circumstances, including strengths, impact of their disability on learning, and stamina when considering options such as teletherapy or tutoring.
“Here's your opportunity to engage TeleTeachers to help you when you have decided how much compensatory services are going to be needed by the students with disabilities receiving special ed related services in your school district. And then you are able to use outside service providers to help provide that compensatory amount of services either during the school day over breaks and developing intensive targeted individual programs.”
It is never too early to look at compensatory services, and engage in a thoughtful discussion regarding the students’ progression towards IEP goals. The pandemic has only exacerbated the intensity of having these discussions, and educators must ask themselves if their students are receiving the services to which they are entitled. Students will be best served when we can confidently say, “yes”.