20-21 School Year and COVID-19: How Do We Get Ready For This?

By Tricia Luker, Senior Staff Advocate

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, the Michigan Legislature and the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) have completed the work necessary to allow Michigan public and charter elementary and secondary schools to “open” for the Fall, 2020 term.

My first reaction? “Oh, great! Now what’s going to happen to special education services in Michigan?” The quick answer is that we don’t really know, but parents, educators and administrators are going to have to work together to figure things out; student by student and need by need.

This article primarily focuses on the educational impact that Covid-19 will have on students with disabilities and their families. But to give context to the special education discussion, here are the general principles that will govern Michigan K-12 public education in the coming months.

  • Local school districts will decide whether to require district students to physically attend all classes at the school buildings; stagger attendance schedules to provide both physical attendance and virtual education opportunities; provide only for virtual education while keeping the school buildings closed; or some combination of these options.
  • The per pupil funding system has been modified to ensure that the local school districts receive the same amount of money per student, regardless of the form of educational programming offered. Districts with mandatory attendance in the school building will receive the same funds per student as districts offering only virtual education options.
  • The requirement that schools meet a total of 180 days to be eligible for student funding has been waived for the coming school year.
  • Local districts must assess all students twice this school year; once within the first 9 weeks of school and again at the end of the school year next June.
  • Districts must have student education goals in place by September 15th and publicize the district’s Covid-19 learning plan for the year by October 1, 2020.
  • Districts are required to reevaluate their school plans publicly every month.
  • Teachers are required to have a two-way “interface” with each student at least twice a week, in person or on-line.

These principles will apply to all students. Local districts will fashion their own processes and programs, based on all available resources and the input of educators, parents, medical and public health experts, state-level administrators and disability-related organizations like The Arc of Oakland County.

But now let’s move into the realm of special education. What are we to expect that Covid-19 considerations are going to do to how our children access and use special education services going forward? Have things changed that much? The early answer is that we just don’t know.

Let’s begin by identifying what hasn’t changed. Consider these examples:

  • The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act [IDEA] and implementing federal regulations have not been amended. They remain in full force and effect.
  • Michigan’s special education laws and implementing Administrative Rules have not been amended and remain in full force and effect as well.
  • The fundamental practices governing the creation and implementation of IEPs also have not been changed. The timelines remain in place; IEP Teams still drive the IEP development process; procedural safeguards still require prior written notice, a state complaint system, access to mediation and the right to request due process; needs still drive the formation of goals and objectives; and outcomes remain the mechanism used to measure the success of the student and the student’s IEP.
  • The participants haven’t changed. We’re all older and wiser parents, educators, administrators and students who have survived a horrific experience which for most of us will be the worst economic and social experience we have in our lives. But we all will sit down at the same table [or Zoom screen] and hopefully we all focus on the student before and with us, who has needs and deserves our help.

What has changed? Many things. We are facing a time of uncertainty. Many of us have lost our grasp of control via schedules and have had to go three directions at once while staying home. Many of us carry more than one role. We’re parent and teacher. We’re administrator and care provider for a family member. We have challenging jobs and families. We have not seen the likes of Covid-19 in our lives.

Three areas of concern remain particularly sticky and are yet to be resolved:

  • “Contingency Learning Plans [CLP]” – MDE introduced this concept in its April 10. 2020 guidance memo issued to lay a foundation for completing the 2019-2020 school year in a lockdown. The term continues to be used, but its utility remains in question. Will CLPs be used as interim substitutes for IEPs? Will CLPs be designed and implemented by IEP Teams or by the District? What process will be used to develop CLPs?
  • Use and evaluation of virtual learning tools as a substitute for in-class learning – The spring lockdown forced an immediate and total conversion from face-to-face classroom and community-based learning to internet classes, primarily self-directed, in the student’s home. Students with disabilities may have deficits in operating the programs without hands-on assistance; the programs might not be properly suited to the student’s learning style; or the programs might not have received the scientific, research-based evaluation necessary to prove the learning material will produce the outcomes sought for the student. How do we address these concerns when planning for the 2020-2021 school year?
  • Compensatory education versus extended school year – How do we accurately determine what student learning deficits were created by the Covid-19 lockdown? How are we going to address those deficits going forward? The new legislation requires that all students be evaluated at least twice during the coming year. The first evaluation must be completed within 90 days of the start of school. The second evaluation must be completed at the end of the school year. The districts are to use these evaluations in part to try to determine how much general education students regressed during the lockdown. There is discussion that general education regression will be matched against the regression demonstrated by special education students in their evaluations. We do not know how this key issue will play out in the coming year.

So how, then, do we go forward with our children? These suggestions are designed to help us reorient our current reality to what we already know about meeting our children’s special education needs.

  • There are no sure things. Use special education laws and supports in the same way that you have throughout your child’s educational career. Leverage what you know the law requires to help expand the IEP Team’s ability to see new ways to meet your child’s needs, whether the resources are being provided virtually or face-to-face.
  • If/when your child’s IEP clashes with a proposed Contingency Learning Plan, concentrate the discussions on your child’s identified needs, rather than on the difference between an IEP and a CLP. Special education law has not changed. The IEP remains the enforceable “contract” between the school and the parent and student.
  • Use all available evaluation tools to ensure that new teaching methods, whether face-to-face or by electronic means, match up with the student’s identified needs, goals and objectives and her/his ability to learn from the methodology.
  • Monitor and record your child’s virtual learning activities as comprehensively as possible for use in the upcoming school year evaluations and in planning for your child’s next IEP. The more time and focus spent on activities outside of the classroom, the more the parent becomes the primary recorder and reporter of the student’s educational performance and progress.
  • Seek help when you need it. The Arc of Oakland County has a senior advocate on staff who is familiar with the IEP process and what that process looks like to parents. Call her. Ask questions of the teachers, therapists and others who have a role in your child’s education.

Ready or not, the 2020-2021 school year is upon us. This is all new territory and we’re going to have to learn it together. Remember and rely upon the skills and methods you have used in the past to ensure that school meets your child’s educational needs. There may be new words and new methods, but special education laws have not changed. We will inform you of developments as they happen.