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A Transformative Year:

A Transformative Year for Students with Disabilities


By Kevin P. Shields and Jennifer Swanson

e picked up the kids on Friday for Spring Break, and they just never went back.” Every story was varied, but introductions generally began with something like that. School districts across the state introduced families to the concept of the extended spring break. While those extra school vacation days were cheered by children, the “holiday” quickly led to a statewide shutdown, impacting all students, families, and educators. The impact on children with disabilities was in many cases severe. In the spring of 2020, public schools across the country transitioned to remote learning. Parents who were fortunate enough to work from home did so, and anxiety exceeded our need for boosted internet bandwidth. Many of us tried our hand at homeschooling and modified family and work schedules, calendaring around asynchronous learning and Zoom meetings. For students with disabilities and their parents, however, the new day-to-day meant more than closed classrooms and virtual lessons.

Federal Law That Protects Students with Disabilities The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) guarantees a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)—or a program tailored to one’s specific needs—to those students in need of special education and related services. The purpose of the IDEA is “to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a [program] that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living.”1 “[T]he centerpiece of the IDEA’s education delivery system is the Individual Education Plan” (IEP).2 A school district must provide an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.3 Among other things, a child’s education plan (or the IEP) must include a description of the related services, additional supports and services, the instructional arrangement, program modifications, the duration and frequency of the services, and the location where educators will provide the services.4 The Annual Review and Dismissal (ARD) Committee develops each child’s IEP. Participants in a child’s ARD Committee meeting normally include the child’s parents, at least one of the child’s general education teachers and a special education teacher, a school representative, a person who can interpret evaluation results, and others that can help support the child.5 If the IEP fails to provide a child with appropriate support to make progress (say, for example, a health pandemic highlights a child’s deficits), the ARD Committee is responsible for reconvening and revising the IEP to ensure the school fully meets the child’s needs.6 The Texas Education Agency’s Pandemic Plan for Students with Disabilities As early as March 2020, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) released its initial guidance on COVID-19 to school districts and families. The State guidance mirrored federal guidance and reemphasized that the school district’s legal obligations to students with disabilities under the IDEA did not change. Unfortunately, the State guidance also provided: