Don’t dismiss a doctor’s prescription for a student to be evaluated

Here's what school teams should do when a parent presents a doctor's note calling for an evaluation, service, or IEP for a student.
By: | November 17, 2020
Getty Images, skynesherGetty Images, skynesher

As students return to in-person instruction, their parents may be concerned about the repercussions of the pandemic on their child’s learning. They may raise those concerns with their child’s pediatrician or other medical provider and arrive at your district with a prescription for an evaluation, specific services, or an IEP from the doctor.

Dismissing this prescription out of hand without investigating the student’s needs could leave you vulnerable to a child find dispute.

“Even before the pandemic, we would treat [these prescriptions] as referrals for assessment requiring a timely response,” says Alejandra León, a school attorney at Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost LLP in Oakland, Calif. “There is such a low threshold to tip over the scale of child find, so typically, that’s the response. If there isn’t quite enough information there, that’s a reason to communicate with the parents, build a relationship, and find out what’s going on.”

Follow these steps when parents present you with a prescription for an evaluation, service or IEP:

Meet with the family. A case manager or other special education contact should as soon as feasible bring the parents in or meet virtually with the parents to establish a connection as they would have before the pandemic. “I don’t think [COVID-19] really changes that,”León says—especially in light of a lack of state and federal waivers for child find and other IDEA obligations and timelines.

Ask parents what concerns they presented to their child’s doctor that may have prompted the prescription. Did the doctor base his recommendation on any evaluations he completed? Did the parents have a specialist do an evaluation, then share that with the doctor? Did the doctor base his prescription on those results? See if the parents can share those evaluations with you. Let them know you would like access to any information they haven’t shared with you before that could shed light on their child’s needs.

Seek permission to connect with the physician. If information is missing from what the parents give you or you just want to gain more perspective on the history of the student, seek parental consent to communicate directly with the child’s physician, León says. But don’t push unnecessarily “There are many times parents don’t want to share private medical information; it may be too much for comfort,” she says. For example, parents may not want their child’s entire medical history available if they are only seeking a little time with a resource specialist. “That’s fine, then we rely only on the information they shared with us,” she says.

But if the student is medically fragile, you may need to push for communication with the doctor. “If it’s a medically fragile student for whom we are getting very medically focused information, then, for the health and safety of the student, perhaps we do want to push on the release,” she says.

Discuss assessing the student. You may find out that the parents told the doctor that they are concerned about their child’s heightened anxiety in the wake of the pandemic. You may want to pursue an evaluation and observe the student more closely during in-person or distance learning to see if you see anxiety affecting the student’s learning. If you are unable to complete a necessary face-to-face assessment because of public health and safety restrictions or parent concerns, work with the parents on the timing and doing what you can based on the information you have. “Health and public safety are first,” she says. “It’s a tough juggle between that and meeting emerging needs, but it can be done, hopefully amicably and with a lot of parent input.”

Cara Nissman covers autism, school psychology and IEP team issues for Special Ed Connection, a DA sister publication.