Uncertain Times Call for Creative Measures: Early Intervention & Early Childhood Special Education in the Time of COVID-19
Original Publish Date: April 1st, 2020
School and program leaders are currently trying to brainstorm innovative ways to deliver early intervention and special education services to children—and comply with state and federal civil rights law—as governors and mayors have shut down schools and programs to slow the spread of COVID-19.
According to the most recent federal data, approximately 400,000 children under age 3 are currently eligible for early intervention services under Part C of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), while an estimated 6.7 million children and youth between the ages of 3 and 21—or 14% of students enrolled in public schools—are eligible for special education under Part B.
Early intervention and special education services are essential to children’s continued growth, development and learning. Alarmingly, many children and youth who are eligible for these services are not currently receiving them as a result of the recent school and program closures, and it is unclear how—or if—they will.
Two weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Education produced a Q&A document informing schools that if they are completely closed because of COVID-19, they don’t have to offer special education—only schools that are still providing education services to all students must give students with disabilities equal access to the same opportunities. Even then districts have wiggle room—as the Department noted “there may be exceptional circumstances that could affect how a particular service is provided.”
Although the Department published a Fact Sheet on Monday, March 16th suggesting that schools should be mindful of the requirements of Section 504, Title II, and Title VI to ensure that all students are able to study and learn in an environment that is “safe and free from discrimination,” states and districts have been left to their own devices to figure out how, exactly, they can comply.
Several days later, the Department published a Supplemental Fact Sheet informing schools that they should not let concerns over how to reach students with disabilities stop them from offering distance learning, and that they don’t have to reach all students the same way. The Department recognized that while it may be “unfeasible or unsafe” for providers to offer some services, such as hands-on physical therapy during school closure, they also noted that “many disability-related modifications and services may be provided effectively online, including many speech or language services through video conferencing.”
A new federal relief package, which was signed into law on Friday, will provide $13.5 billion to states. Most of this funding must be passed on to school districts to coordinate long-term school closures, including buying technology and connectivity to help students continue learning, as well as purchasing adaptive equipment for students with disabilities. Notably, the law also provides Education Secretary Betsy DeVos 30 days to seek waivers for additional provisions of IDEA in order to provide schools with “limited flexibility.” This makes many disability rights advocates nervous, as it may let states and districts off the hook for providing accommodations to children. Many families worry that waivers will provide schools and programs a way out of providing services rather than a way forward, however imperfect and challenging the process may initially be.
Some districts are still not offering remote instruction because they’re trying to figure out how to serve all students, including students with special needs. Equity has emerged as one of the primary challenges to provide home-based learning and services to families: some students don’t have computers or Internet at home and are at risk of being excluded. Some families have phone plans, but cannot afford the minutes to use on platforms such as Zoom or FaceTime. For many students with disabilities, remote learning can be particularly complex due to their wide range of needs.
Despite these challenges, many states and districts have taken the initiative to develop their own policies and practices to ensure children and families continue to receive critical early intervention and special education services during these uncertain times.
Early Intervention providers are beginning to shift to telehealth, utilizing platforms such as Zoom, WebEx, Skype, Google Duo, WhatsApp and FaceTime to provide virtual services to families. In Massachusetts and New Hampshire, Early Intervention providers have been told that virtual visits conducted through platforms such as Zoom and even FaceTime will be covered just like in-person visits by Medicaid and private insurance. One Early Intervention program manager in Colorado said she has been hearing anecdotally that children are actually making better progress when the visits are virtual—when the provider is coaching from a distance instead of in the room, parents and caregivers are engaging in even more high quality one-on-one time with their child.
The Ohio Association of County Boards of Developmental Disabilities (OACB) produced a series of eight videos highlighting best practice regarding use of technology with evidence based early intervention, illustrating how video conferencing and related technologies can improve access to, and the quality of, supports for families as well as better enable teams to practice evidence-based early intervention services. The Family, Infant and Preschool Program also created a video about how to use coaching and natural learning environment practices via a web-based meeting application.
Many states and school districts have also found creative ways to reach school-aged children with special needs in their home, now that classroom-based learning is no longer an option. The New York City Department of Education has offered suggested activities and strategies for families to support Diverse Learning at Home for Special Populations. Resources include links for assistive technology support, as well as specific occupational, physical, and speech therapy activities for students as young as preschool. The Tennessee Department of Education is exploring the use of public television channels to reach families that may have limited internet access, including families in rural communities. Special education teachers are also thinking about how to adapt to a new virtual reality by ensuring lessons connect to real life.
Check out more helpful Early Intervention and Early Childhood Special Education resources as we navigate the impact of COVID-19 on the Early Childhood Programs and Supports wiki page of the Early Childhood Connector.
- It is critical for states and districts to commit to providing early intervention and special education for all eligible families as soon as possible, utilizing innovative accommodations to ensure they do not experience long lapses in their services.
- It is important for states and districts to think about providing a variety of mediums and platforms to parents and caregivers so they can figure out what works best for them. All families will have different access to technology and resources, so providing several options will hopefully make services more assessable.
- States and districts should ensure that teleservices provided virtually through a range of platforms will be covered by Medicaid and private insurance, just like in-person visits.
- Local education agencies should continue to provide free developmental screenings and evaluations to families via phone and telehealth, where practicable, to ensure that young children with developmental delays and disabilities that have not yet been identified for early intervention and special education services do not slip through the cracks over the next several months.
We don't yet know the full impact that COVID-19 will have on our public health system or our economy. But we can stop it from decimating our nation’s Early Intervention and early childhood special education systems and unnecessarily disrupting services to families. Through sound policy and creative solutions at the federal, state and local level, we must strive to safeguard children’s civil and educational rights to these critical services, in both the immediate and indefinite future.
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- How has your program, community, or state responded to the COVID-19 crisis as it relates to Early Intervention and early childhood special education?
- What platforms have you been using or what strategies have you been employing to provide teletherapy Early Intervention and remote early childhood special education services to children in your community? Have you established effective ways to obtain electronic consent from families?
- Has your state developed materials and info sheets specifically for families who are in Early Intervention or referred during this time so they understand the policies that are being put in place and the services they can receive?
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