4 ways to know when to use a shortened school day

Shortened school day could infringe on students' ability to receive FAPE
By: | April 14, 2021

IEP teams may be tempted while students are slowly returning to school buildings to shorten the school days of students with disabilities who exhibit behavioral issues, particularly if they refuse to follow health and safety guidelines.

But special education directors should alert staff that doing so in the long term could infringe on students’ ability to receive FAPE.

“It should never be for staffing or convenience,” said Stephanie Denzel, a school attorney at Guercio & Guercio LLP in Latham, New York. “It needs to be data-driven and based on the individual student’s needs.”

Encourage teams to follow these tips when considering a shortened school day for a student with a disability:

1. Clarify when a shortened school day may be appropriate. A student may require a shortened school day to receive FAPE because of a medical issue that saps their stamina, Denzel said.

“In some cases, a part-time schedule is less restrictive than the homebound alternative they might be faced with,” she said. The shortened school day may be temporary or ongoing, depending on the student’s condition and changing needs. Depending on the student’s stamina for learning online, she may be able to have a combination of a shortened schedule of in-person learning and some remote services. “They may be able to have some online component that ends up being less restrictive than homebound tutoring would have been in the past,” she said.

A shortened school day may also be necessary for a student who struggles with transitions and needs support to return to in-person learning, Denzel said.

“Particularly for some students with very routinized and rigid behaviors, they need to be able to experience success, and a shortened school day is a way to build that pattern of success,” she said. “These may be students with significant needs; they may be on the autism spectrum.”

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Look at all the data regarding past transitions to see if the student needs help transitioning now, Denzel said. This may include data on the student’s previous need for extended school year services.

2. Rule out alternatives to a shortened school day. Review whether staff can implement any supports or services that allow the student to stay on school grounds for a full day, Denzel said.

A high school student with a medical issue may, for example, be able to take a short nap in the nurse’s office in the middle of the day, then return to classes for the rest of the day. “[Alternatives] should be looked at first before you shorten any student’s time at school,” she said.

3. Create a detailed plan for implementing, gradually extending a shortened day. Develop a clear plan as a team based on the data for how the student will gradually return from a shortened school schedule if it’s temporary, Denzel said.

Determine what supports need to be put in place and the data that needs to be collected to make sure the student returns to full-time learning as soon as possible.

“It should always be preplanned,” she said. “How are we going to work the student back in? For some students, a shortened day will ease their transition and make them more available for learning overall. For other students, they may get used to the shortened school day even if it’s done for a couple of weeks and then you’ll end up with resistance or increased behaviors because they don’t want to continue for a longer day. It’s really important that this is planned ahead of time, so you make sure it is really addressing the student’s unique needs.”

Also ensure it’s clear how the student is going to continue to access services and instruction he needs to receive FAPE despite the shorter day, Denzel said.

“That’s something districts often miss,” she said. “They shorten the student’s school day, but they never replace that support. They either need to reschedule the services or maybe do them remotely. That’s where being flexible with your scheduling and creative in trying to meet the student’s needs comes into play.”

4. Continually monitor the student’s progress. Regularly revisit how the shortened school day is working, Denzel said.

“The IEP team should be revisiting that quite frequently to make sure the student is moving toward a full-time school day or that the shortened school day still meets their needs,” she said. “You should build that into the transition plan.” Discuss how often to check the student’s progress, such as every four to six weeks, and how often to step up the student’s time at school. “It may not make sense to meet that often if a student has a medical need that is going to be a lasting issue for six or 12 months — or ongoing,” she said. “Someone should be tasked with monitoring the data so they can convene the team more frequently, if necessary.”

Cara Nissman covers autism, school psychology, and IEP team issues for LRP Publications.