Independent study vs. distance learning for students with disabilities

School teams should respond with FAPE in mind when a parent of a student with a disability requests independent study from home.

Your district may have opened up school buildings, but what should a team do when parents of a student with a disability want their child to continue learning at home? A parent may request independent study if your state offers the option separately from distance learning. Don’t automatically acquiesce to this request or you may inadvertently deny the student FAPE.

“You don’t want independent study to become an exclusionary practice,” says Matt Tamel, a school attorney at Dannis Woliver Kelley in San Francisco. “I have noticed districts blending the two concepts and I don’t think that’s a good idea. I think they should really separate out what distance learning is and what independent study is.”

Tamel suggests taking these actions when parents request independent study for their child with a disability:

– Find out why the student’s parents request independent study for their child. Meet virtually or in-person with the parents and the rest of the IEP team to discuss the request for independent study. Find out from parents if it is because their child is medically fragile or is under quarantine for COVID-19. Or maybe it’s because they are concerned about their child’s lack of progress in remote learning. You don’t want to place a student in independent study if his programming can be altered to allow him to make progress in a less restrictive environment.

Blending virtual learning and independent study could result in a funding fiasco regarding services the school fails to deliver.

– Clarify what independent study is. Discuss how independent study is different from distance learning in your state. For example, the student may not be entitled to the same level of teacher contact and services he would be during remote learning. “Districts have a whole list of standards they need to follow for distance learning, but, for independent study, they don’t have to follow those things,” says Tamel. Blending virtual learning and independent study could result in a funding fiasco regarding services the school fails to deliver, such as applied behavior analysis, despite receiving the funding to provide it “You don’t want to get into a situation where you’re audited and they [find that] you didn’t follow the distance learning rules; therefore, you have to return some of this money,” Tamel says.

Emphasize the least restrictive environment. Ensure parents understand that their child may be expected to continue independent study even after schools fully reopen and it is safe to return. The IEP team should discuss the LRE of the student and ensure parents understand what she may be giving up to engage in independent study. “Students may not be able to just come back to school,” Tamel explains. “So I would be really thoughtful of the consequences of putting a student on that track.”

Indeed, the decision should involve the entire IEP team, Tamel says. “This has to be an IEP team decision and the team has to demonstrate that the student will make progress.”

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

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