Tips to Navigate Virtual Schooling

Even virtually, students with special needs are still entitled to a free, appropriate education

Now that families across the United States are easing into a school year that looks nothing like they expected due the national pandemic, things are getting a little easier—for families with traditional educational needs, that is. 

But for Maryland families with children with disabilities or special needs, the time to ask questions is never-ending. Ellen Callegary knows—she’s been on the receiving end of many such calls this school year. What does the special education lawyer with The Law Offices of Ellen Callegary most want parents of children with disabilities and special needs to know?

“That your child is still entitled to a free, appropriate education [FAPE],” she says. “So many parents don't know that. It might sound really basic, but they think, ‘Oh God, my kid will just have to do whatever the school system says because it's a pandemic.’ The fact that there’s a pandemic does not limit or reduce their legal entitlement under the Individual with Disabilities Education Act [IDEA] to that free, appropriate education.”

As “appropriate” has taken on a new meaning in 2020, Callegary says creative trouble-shooting is necessary.

“Many children with language difficulties or children with autism have difficulty playing with peers, and may just ignore them,” Callegary says. “I have clients who mostly only connect with adults. So if you have an objective on the IEP that says, ‘Suzy is going to take turns with a peer three out of four times during interactions,’ we have to think creatively and collaboratively about what can be done. Everybody needs to take it seriously from a safety perspective, but also from the perspective of the legal requirement that they provide FAPE to these students, and the approach should be that the IEP should be implemented to the greatest extent possible.” 

For example, right now, that component of an IEP might not be able to be carried out with children on a playground, but, Callegary asks, “Is there a way to do it virtually as a dyad, meaning you get one other kid on [the video call], and you have the teacher lead a game with the kids? Maybe they blow bubbles at each other. Maybe they bounce a ball in rhythm. It could be any alternative way to work on that same skill. We just need to be creative.”

Callegary’s Tips to Navigate the 2020 School Year

  1. Be candid at IEP team meetings. “Some parents might be embarrassed to tell the truth of the matter, like, ‘We don’t have a laptop’ or ‘English is not my first language, and I’m the parent overseeing virtual schooling.’ But you must be honest with what you can and cannot do.” 
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Callegary recounts the story of one of her clients, for whom, on the first day of remote learning, “everything fell apart, technologically. But I had gotten the wonderful public-school assistant technology specialist involved in the case, who actually went to their home and helped. That child had assistive technology support and consultation on his IEP, so that's part of what he's legally entitled to, even now.” 
  3. Come prepared to IEP meetings with a thorough list of what’s working and what isn’t—and consider how these things might impact the IEP. “For example, an assessment can be done to determine what technology supports should be added to a child’s IEP.”
  4. Consult with a lawyer. “I don’t end up going to IEP team meetings with everybody I consult with. So the benefit of a consultation is within a very brief period of time, I can say, ‘This is not right’ Or ‘Yep. This makes sense’ or, ‘Here are five questions that I recommend you ask.’ I think the part that people don't understand about contacting an attorney is that doesn't mean you get an attorney. A good ethical attorney is going to evaluate what the individual needs are and advise as to what specific help is needed.”

If you have questions or concerns about your student rights, an experienced Maryland schools and education law attorney can help. 

For more general information about this area of law, see our schools and education law overview.

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