Accommodations and modifications requests in the age of COVID

Here's how teachers and school teams can determine if a student is struggling due to a disability or because of issues with the overall remote curriculum.
By: | January 4, 2021
Getty Images, Jamie GrillGetty Images, Jamie Grill

A lot of students are struggling with school this year, says Jackie Wernz, a school attorney at Franczek PC in Chicago.

“Not because they necessarily have a disability, but because this whole system isn’t what we signed up for,” she explains. “It will have an impact on students in a way we’re not familiar with.” It puts a lot of pressure on teachers and administrators when a parent says, “I don’t think my child can do this,” to really be able to drill down and ask: Can the student not access the material because of her disability, or is it something else in this environment that’s preventing her? And is that something also affecting the larger group of students?

“This is a wholesale change in the way education is being provided,” Wernz says. “We just can’t assume we’ll be able to superimpose [a traditional] analysis onto this context. We’ll have to look at whether a student is struggling because of their disability or because of issues with the overall remote curriculum.”

Ask these two questions to help dig down on a student’s needs.

1. Would the request change what a student is expected to learn, as opposed to how?

“That’s the overarching question,” Wernz says. “I don’t think that’s changing in this environment.” In other words, are we making a change to the standards being used (the what) or trying to help a student access the work (the how)? The difference is between how the student learns with an accommodation and what the student learns with a modification.

Students will still request accommodations, but they are going to be different now. Before, a request for preferential seating to avoid distraction might now be about finding a way where the student can only see the teacher in the Zoom platform. “If a student has trouble paying attention in a classroom because of his classmates, imagine how difficult and challenging now [it will be] on the computer where [the student is] seeing 25 heads and talking to the teacher,” she says.

2. Is this a request that is actually related to the student’s specific disability and situation, or is this a broader issue that may be impacting more than just this student?

Say a parent contacts a teacher and says, “I think my student needs an accommodation or modification. She needs some kind of change, because this isn’t working.” The first step would be to understand the cause of the need, Wernz says.

Is it related to or necessary to the educational environment, or is it something that is a byproduct of online instruction?

Take, for example, a high school student with anxiety. She may not be able to complete her work at a level that is expected, but if you look around, you may also see that all students are less able to complete that high-level work in this environment because of lack of in-person instruction or access to quiet places to work that didn’t exist before, Wernz says. “You have to think about it in a whole new context,” she said. Expectations from the brick-and-mortar classroom don’t directly translate in this remote environment.”

It’s such a hard question because right now general education students may automatically be receiving what are considered accommodations already, Wernz says. For example, doing worksheets to show mastery of a particular concept is an accommodation sometimes given to students with disabilities. But now teachers may be using worksheets with all students because they work well in the home learning environment.

When the parent requests for evaluation, they don’t know whether other students are able to access the material as well. Communicate with parents about issues that all parents and students are experiencing with the materials, a determination as to whether this is something unique to this particular student can be made, Wernz says.

“Make sure that it is actually the disability that is leading to the request and not that there’s just a problem with our online methods,” she adds. “It’s really complicated right now.”

Florence Simmons covers Section 504, paraprofessionals, and transportation for Special Ed Connection, a DA sister publication.