Special ed students receive new IEPs for distance learning

Leah Zerwitz

Special education teachers have been modifying Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) since last spring to ensure that students with learning differences are set up for success during distance learning. Modifications include co-taught classes and small group or individual lessons with a special education teacher.

In the beginning of the lockdown, DCPS staff were unable to formally amend students’ IEP and 504 plans to address the circumstances of distance learning. 

Instead, students, parents, teachers, and administrators had to quickly and informally develop plans to address the special needs of students with learning differences.

Federal and state law prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities, students who may not need formal special education services may nevertheless be entitled to some reasonable accommodations—referred to as a “504 Plan.” For example, a 504 Plan for a student with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) may require teachers to afford the student preferential seating in the classroom or to allow the student to take “movement breaks.” Both IEPs and 504 Plans are reviewed on an annual basis. 

One sophomore with ADHD noted that their regular IEP provides that they are entitled to “extra time on long projects or tests.” Additionally, they can have “an extra teacher in some of [their] core classes.” According to the student, their accommodations were never modified in the spring during distance learning. 

Once summer break began, DCPS officials committed to accommodating the needs of students with disabilities in the event that distance learning was to continue into the fall and beyond. According to Wilson’s special education coordinator, Jilliann Mode, “this school year, every student with an IEP will get an Individualized Distance Learning Plan (IDLP). [These] will outline what supports the student will receive during distance learning to help support the IEP.” Mode added that “special education teachers are also able to set up extra times to meet virtually with students with IEPs to offer extra support.” 

As for the almost 33 DCPS students that have IEPs for “sensory impairments,” DCPS is providing assistive technology devices. “DCPS will collaborate with families on distance learning plans and general education teachers to ensure educational content is accessible and accommodating materials prior to lessons,” a DCPS spokesman said.

According to Secretary Betsy DeVos, a spokeswoman for U.S. Education, the federal government is assisting in serving students with disabilities. “The Department issued guidance to help facilitate [helping students with special needs], which pointed out flexibility schools have when educating students remotely,” DeVos said in a recent statement. These new modifications may include teachers and students communicating using American Sign Language via videoconference or materials written in Braille being delivered to a blind student. According to Principal Kimberly Martin, some braille machines are being used by visually impaired students during the online learning process.

DCPS is required to provide a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) to all school-aged children in DC. And, per the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), FAPE includes special education and related services for students with learning differences. Outside of distance learning, these are tailored to a student’s individual needs as formally documented in an IEP. For instance, an IEP of a student with dyslexia may require the school to provide all instructional materials in audio form (as opposed to written). “For all students learning virtually has become a challenge. But it has reinforced the point that extra support is vital for success during distance learning,” said Mode.