How to protect medically vulnerable students when school doors reopen

As districts make plans to reopen schools, IEP and 504 teams should be identifying and planning how to serve students with medical conditions that make them especially vulnerable to COVID-19.

Students who are immunocompromised or have a history of respiratory illness may be at greater risk of either contracting the coronavirus or experiencing severe symptoms. As districts plan to reopen school buildings and resume school activities, IEP and Section 504 teams should give special thought to how they will program for and place students who are medically fragile.

Erin Gilsbach, executive director at EdLaw Interactive, says schools should be proactively working this summer to identify students whose underlying medical conditions place them at risk. “While many concerned parents have already brought these issues to the schools’ attention, schools should not wait for a parent to raise the issue.”

Team considerations

IEP and Section 504 teams should reconvene to determine what accommodations a student may need to remain safe and whether the student may require an alternative placement, Gilsbach says.

– Know what general modifications will be made. To properly consider what accommodations a student needs, the IEP or Section 504 team must know what general modifications the school will be putting in place, so the team can make informed decisions about what additional steps are necessary.

– Include the student’s primary care physician (or medical specialist) in the discussion. Teams should be ready to succinctly describe to the student’s medical providers what modifications are being made to protect the general student population. Then, they should ask for specific recommendations as to what additional measures might be needed to keep the student safe, Gilsbach said.

– Identify students who cannot safely learn in school buildings. IEP and 504 teams must determine which students are at too great a risk regardless of what safeguards are in place. These students may need to continue learning online, but that decision must be made by the IEP team or 504 team on an individualized basis and with the benefit of appropriate data. “It is crucial that schools obtain this information from the student’s medical providers so that they can proceed with developing an alternative program in the home or in another appropriate setting,” Gilsbach says.

– Keep up with research. Schools will need to be vigilant about keeping up with current research on COVID-19, Gilsbach adds. “Some potential accommodations will depend upon emerging information about the virus (such as whether the use of classroom air filtration might be effective in reducing airborne virus particles).” As researchers have more time to study the virus, a better understanding will emerge as to how to effectively minimize the risks at school.

Programming considerations

Andrew Rudloff with Bishop Colvin Johnson & Kent, LLC in Birmingham, Ala., point out that developing and implementing programming for a student who is medically vulnerable is often difficult for an IEP team even outside of pandemic circumstances. The same considerations that applied pre-pandemic (e.g., decision-making driven by educational needs and abilities) should still apply. But now, Rudloff says, IEP teams may wish to give attention, or more attention, to:

  • Medical information from the student’s private providers.
  • School-based infection control precautions.
  • Increased or altered cleaning regimens in school facilities (and the potential impact of those regimens on the student’s safety).
  • Other supports that may be needed for educators or service providers to serve the student.
    “Of course, this will mean things like infection control precautions and cleaning regimens at the building level may need to be known and understood by at least one school representative on the team (e.g., the local education agency representative),” Rudloff says.

These considerations will dovetail in the team’s discussion and determination of the student’s least restrictive environment, as well as in what role, if any, continued virtual instruction should play in the provision of appropriate programming for the student, Rudloff says. “Regardless, the overarching end goal should still be the same: development and implementation of programming to enable meaningful benefit.”

Flexibility considerations

Director of Special Education Sarah Taylor at Forsyth County School System in Cumming, Ga., says her district is seeing a need to continue virtual teaching for some students, such as those with autoimmune conditions, during the 2020-21 school year. And, some parents are asking for these placements. Taylor advises that districts plan to address these issues and offer flexibility to meet individual student needs.

Another option may be to keep some students in small groups to reduce the risk of infection. In deciding how to protect a medically vulnerable student and whether the student can safely attend school, Taylor advises that IEP and 504 teams:

  • Seek the input of the student’s medical provider to help determine the needed environment and supports.
  • Discuss what realistically can and can’t be done in a school building to keep a student safe.
  • Obtain the parent’s input.
  • Consider convening the team before school begins to discuss offering new accommodations or a new placement.

Joseph Pfrommer, Esq., covers special education legal issues for DA sister publication Special Ed Connection.

Read more coverage on coronavirus, including how schools are planning for fall.

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