The Rights of Students with Special Needs Regarding Virtual Schooling

Maryland children are entitled to a free, appropriate education

By Amy White | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on January 11, 2024 Featuring practical insights from contributing attorney Ellen A. Callegary

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In 2020, families across the United States faced a school year that looked nothing like they expected due to the coronavirus pandemic.

For Maryland families of students with disabilities or special needs, the time to ask questions is never-ending—even more so during a time of school closures, online learning, and uncertainty about special education programs. Ellen Callegary had direct experience with this, as she was on the receiving end of many calls in the 2020 school year. What did the special education lawyer most want parents of children with disabilities and special needs to know during the pandemic? We spoke with Callegary during the pandemic for her insights.

“That your child is still entitled to a free, appropriate education,” 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 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act [IDEA] to that free, appropriate education.”

I don’t end up going to IEP team meetings with everybody I consult with. So the benefit of a consultation is that 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 it doesn’t mean you get an attorney. A good ethical attorney is going to evaluate what the individual needs of students are and advise as to what specific help is needed.

Ellen A. Callegary

Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)

As “appropriate” took on a new meaning in 2020, Callegary says creative troubleshooting 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 Individualized Education Program (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 Four Tips to Navigate School Years During Public Health Emergencies

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

Come prepared 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 that 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 it doesn’t mean you get an attorney. A good ethical attorney is going to evaluate what the individual needs of students are and advise as to what specific help is needed.”

If you have questions or concerns about your child’s needs and rights to reasonable accommodations, an experienced Maryland special 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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