DESE Issues Guidance Instructing School Districts to Prioritize Students with Disabilities
The beginning of the new school year will mark changes in how school districts must provide services to special education students during COVID-related school closures. The Department of Elementary and Special Education’s (“DESE”) most recent guidance related to students with special needs and the COVID-19 pandemic instructs school districts to prioritize providing in-person services during the 2020-21 school year to students with disabilities – particularly preschool age students and students with significant and complex needs. The rationale behind this guidance is that these students have a more difficult time accessing remote instruction than other students.
In its guidance, DESE defines “students with complex and significant needs” as:
- Students already identified as “high needs” through the IEP process on the IEP form entitled “Primary Disability/Level of Need-PL3.” Such students must meet at least two of these criteria:
- Services provided outside of the general education classroom
- Service providers are special education teachers and related service providers;
- Special education services constitute more than 75% of the student’s school day;
- Students who cannot engage in remote learning due to their disability-related needs;
- Students who primarily use aided and augmentative communication;
- Students who are homeless;
- Students in foster care or congregate care; and/or
- Students dually identified as English Learners.
DESE emphasizes that school districts must first attempt to provide full-time in-person instruction for these students, even if the rest of the school has entered into a hybrid or remote model of instruction. In the event that this level of service is not possible, DESE stresses that school districts should provide as many in-person services to these students as possible in school on a part-time basis, and, where possible, provide the remainder of the services in-person in the home or community setting.
DESE also clarifies that during the 2020-21 school year school districts must provide students with all services documented in their IEPs – whether through in-person instruction, remote instruction, or a combination of both, with a strong emphasis on providing in-person instruction to the greatest extent possible, while abiding by the current necessary health and safety requirements.
Additionally, while DESE had advised school districts in the Spring of 2020 that they could satisfy the requirement to provide a free and appropriate public education (“FAPE”) during remote learning through a Resources and Supports model (i.e. sending packets and assignments home coupled with frequent communication with parents), DESE has revised its position for the 2020-2021 school year. DESE now instructs school districts that they must be prepared to provide remote learning to students with special needs through the “Instruction and Services” model (i.e. structured learning time, teletherapy and video conferencing). The “Resources and Supports” delivery model can only be used on a temporary basis for no more than two weeks upon return to school.
DESE’s guidance can be found here: http://www.doe.mass.edu/sped/
If you have any questions about information contained in the guidance, or other concerns related to the provision of special education services during this pandemic, please give us a call. We, like you, are in new territory but we are here to support you to ensure that students receive the services they need. You can reach us at (781) 930-3127.