Statewide virtual schools keep students with disabilities connected

A statewide virtual school could reach large numbers of students in rural areas
By: | February 23, 2021

Statewide virtual schools may be an option for students with disabilities to access and benefit from their educational program even after schools reopen nationwide.

Other states’ programs may offer a glimpse into how they can function as local educational agencies and meet students’ needs.

Florida has the oldest statewide internet-based public high school in the United States, founded 24 years ago, and well-established long before a worldwide pandemic would test its worth.

It may come as a surprise that only 23 states have state virtual schools. They may be separate nonprofit organizations, charter schools, or contracted by state educational agencies and are funded by state appropriations, grants, or fees.

However, not all statewide virtual schools function as public schools. They may have content from a variety of sources, they may not employ certified teachers, or offer state-recognized course credit.

Some virtual schools may not serve all students K-12 or offer a full curriculum, state assessments, administrative services, support services, or services to students with disabilities. Some virtual schools cannot issue diplomas.

Many states offer tuition-free virtual programs and they have satisfied the increasing need for a safe and reliable at-home option for students during the pandemic. Some states, like Mississippi, don’t have this option. A statewide virtual school could reach large numbers of students in rural areas and serve what is certain to be a permanent need.

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Virtual programs ignore district attendance zones and residency requirements. Many, like Florida Virtual School, offer an online platform with certified teacher instruction and support services and a full academic program over a 180-day calendar that follows the public school.

As the school of record, all instruction, support, and services are provided virtually to students. Unlike the decision in Clear Passage Educational Center, where a hearing officer found that the California virtual school was not the LEA responsible for providing FAPE under the IDEA, FLVS acts as the LEA and must provide FAPE to students with disabilities.

For students with disabilities in Florida, for example, the virtual school determines whether the student will succeed in the educational delivery context, and an IEP team must determine that full-time virtual school is appropriate.

FLVS exceptional student education teachers review all students’ IEPs upon interest in applying. All necessary special education and related services must be able to be delivered online in a virtual manner to students who are enrolled in the virtual program full time.

Nikki Callaghan, district ESE director for FLVS, explained that FLVS Full Time schools have a multi-tiered system of supports in place for all students that includes academic, behavioral, and social-emotional support.

“FLVS offers a continuum of services and support for students with disabilities. Our mastery-based learning model allows students to work at their pace, continuing with the course only once they have mastered a subject,” Callaghan said.

FLVS employs many professionals who are actively engaged with students virtually, including resource intervention teachers, ESE teachers, mental health professionals, speech-language therapists, occupational therapists, and physical therapists. They provide one-to-one support and are available until 8 p.m. weekdays via phone, text, and email. IEP meetings are held online via video and phone conference.

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Virtual schools must recognize the need for differentiation in virtual instruction versus in-person instruction after COVID-19. So, not only will educators need to differentiate instruction for students with special needs, they will also need to differentiate their virtual instruction to ensure that students with disabilities are able to fully participate and engage in virtual instruction.

In a wide-ranging Dear Colleague letter, the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services and the Office of Special Education Programs explained that the IDEA, including its provisions concerning child find, monitoring, and compliance, applies with equal force to virtual schools.

Kelli Dreier, Esq., covers special education legal issues for LRP Publications.