State and Federal Agencies Issue More Guidance Interpreting IDEA Requirements as Schools Return to In-Person Services

On September 30, 2021, the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) issued a Question-and-Answer document interpreting requirements of the IDEA considering the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic as schools return to in-person services. (Return to School Roadmap: Development and Implementation of Individualized Education Programs in the Least Restrictive Environment under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) The new guidance document includes topics such as considering the child’s need for compensatory services and use of alternative means such as videoconferences or conference calls to hold IEP team meetings and due process proceedings even when schools have returned to in-person instruction.

In addition, on September 1, 2021, the California Department of Education issued guidance for local educational agencies in identifying factors to consider when determining impacts to learning or services related to COVID-19 school disruptions, including examples of strategies to monitor pupil progress for the development of IEPs. (Conducting Individualized Determinations of Need) The guidance includes, among other things, questions for IEP teams to consider when determining services and support needs for students.

Also, on August 24, 2021, the Office of Special education Programs (OSEP) issued guidance encouraging local educational agencies to review their current child find policies and procedures to ensure they remain effective in light of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on students. (Return to School Roadmap: Q&A on Child Find Under Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). Specifically, OSEP recommends that LEAs consider conducting additional screenings of children whose academic and behavioral needs may require an evaluation to determine eligibility for special education and related services. OSEP also recommends that LEAs find ways to increase awareness of special education supports for students by providing information about the screening process in settings frequented by parents and conducting social media campaigns.

While various informal guidance from state and federal agencies that oversee special education and related services is not legally binding, hearing officers and courts often rely upon this type of guidance as persuasive authority in analyzing specific cases. LEAs may want to review the information contained in such guidance to seek clarity regarding existing requirements under the law.