Managing parent requests for full-time virtual learning

Rather than automatically rejecting a request for a student with disabilities to continue virtual schooling for after school buildings re-open, school teams can take several actions.
By: | June 17, 2020
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While remote learning has been difficult for many students during the pandemic, particularly those with significant disabilities, many students with IEPs have found that they thrive in it.

As districts start to reopen and make plans for reopening in the fall, schools are likely to receive a number of parent requests for students with disabilities to switch to full-time virtual schooling.

While students with disabilities in public virtual schools are entitled to the same rights and protections as those in brick-and-mortar public schools, they are not guaranteed placement in a virtual school upon request. IEP teams have the responsibility to determine the appropriateness of a placement and may make an individualized determination that virtual schooling, in general, is not appropriate based on a student’s unique needs.

In other words, you can’t just reject parents’ request for virtual schooling as you approach the return to school because you think it’s inappropriate. You want to review as a team everything you know about the student and discuss why it may or may not work, while also keeping in mind your state’s laws regarding virtual schooling.

“Train your teams to say, ‘OK, let’s talk about it,'” says Betsey Helfrich, a school attorney at Mickes O’Toole LLC in St. Louis. “You want to have a really thorough discussion as to why it may not be in the student’s best interest.”

Follow these tips if parents want their child with a disability to shift to full-time virtual schooling when schools reopen:

• Find out why parents want their child to permanently go virtual. Ensure that they aren’t concerned about bullying or another issue that you are responsible for investigating and addressing in case it interferes with the child’s ability to receive FAPE. If the parents mention new behavioral or mental health concerns, also recognize that you may need to consider additional evaluations. You don’t want to shirk your child find duties.

• Suggest a test. How the student learns remotely through a virtual school may look different and involve different teachers and expectations than what she experienced learning remotely during the pandemic. If you have several requests from parents, consider setting up a “virtual learning day” as a trial run for students and their families to see how it’ll work when there is not a crisis, Helfrich says. “Talk with parents about what worked and what didn’t work,” she says. Teachers and related service providers can also use this trial period to get a sense of whether it is a good fit.

• Consider the curriculum. Discuss as a team whether the curriculum can be modified appropriately for the student to be able to learn and make progress online, Helfrich says. It may not be feasible in certain instances. “Talk about what you need to do to help the student succeed in that environment,” she advises. “How you can get them ready for that environment. I think that’s important.”

• Gauge accessibility. Talk about whether the virtual school the student seeks to enroll in offers sufficient digital accessibility to meet his needs to learn or what you may need to acquire or do to ensure the online program is accessible.

• Emphasize flexibility. Ensure parents understand that if their child isn’t making progress in virtual schooling, the team likely will need to come together again and discuss options, including his return to a brick-and-mortar school.

You may also find that virtual schooling is not affording the student access to his nondisabled peers in accordance with his needs and least restrictive environment mandates and he may benefit more from a blended situation.

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