The School Bell Rings: Basic Realities of the 20-21 School Year and the Need for a COVID-19 Special Education Steering Committee

By: Matthew Korobkin, Senior Advisor

The 2020-21 school year will be unlike any other experienced by American schoolchildren and their teachers since the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918. The expectations placed on school district administrators and educators are unprecedented. If the Spanish Flu taught us anything, it is that we may be faced with extended social distancing until the pandemic is managed. Although the Spanish Flu gives us a glimpse of some lessons learned, when it comes to Special Education, we have no playbook to follow.

During the summer, state education agencies required local school districts to create “re-entry plans” to outline how students can safely and equitably return to school in multiple learning environments. In most cases, in cooperation with local and state boards of health, these plans outline the social distancing and personal protective equipment required for students. These plans are often chock full of implementation supports for the majority of students but offer little to no support on the unique needs of students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).

We believe there are three basic realities of the 2020-21 reopening of school, may it be fully virtual, a hybrid of remote and in-person instruction, or fully in-person. And in order to provide the most effective special education programming given these unique circumstances, we recommend the creation of individual district COVID-19 Special Education Steering Committees.

Three Basic Realities of Special Education During the 2020-21 School Year

  1. Teachers and school leaders are not doctors or scientists. In the absence of specific guidance supporting the implementation of special education during reentry, is important to be making informed decisions on the nuances specific to providing students with IEPs a free and appropriate education, hence it is important to create a COVID-19 Special Education Steering Committee.
  1. All aspects of a child’s learning environment will be impacted by social distancing measures. For many students with IEPs, extra care will need to be taken as it relates to mask and distancing compliance, classroom learning spaces, therapy spaces, eating spaces, and specialized instruction. Because of COVID-19, informed health and safety procedures for special education must be created and adhered to.
  1. Given the fluidity of the situation, students with IEPs may be exposed to multiple learning environments. Informed instructional considerations for special education will require planning and flexibility under the advice of multiple, informed stakeholders. At the same time, assessing students present levels of academic and functional performance in a timely manner will be critical.

Key Recommendation: The Creation of a COVID-19 Special Education Steering Committee

In a prior blog post, we offered districts a COVID-19 Reentry Checklist. One of the items we recommended to districts was the creation of a COVID-19 Special Education Steering Committee.  Have you considered developing a COVID-19 special education steering committee to make policy decisions related to health and safety for students with disabilities in various school settings? 

In some states, boards of health have offered specific considerations for students with disabilities.  However, in many others, that may not be the case. And even when there is state guidance, there may be nuances specific to the school district’s population and the students it serves. Offering local, specific, and targeted advice on special education implementation is where this steering committee can play a role.

The needs of students with disabilities are complex, especially during a global pandemic, which is why we recommend the following constituencies:

  • District Physician and Local Board of Health: The fluid nature of the pandemic requires decisions rooted in science, with guidance and support from local medical experts.
    • Children with disabilities may be in situations that create increased risk for themselves and staff – e.g., the close proximity of staff to students in learning, hygiene, toileting, de-escalation, restraint.
  • Special Education Legal Counsel and/or Board Counsel: Students with disabilities and their parents are afforded special rights through IDEA, state laws, and regulations. When done with limited information and foresight, policy implementation decisions for special education made during the COVID-19 emergency may have downstream legal implications for the district.
  • Special Education Director: The Director, through Supervisors and Case Managers, is aware of the unique circumstances for children in the district. They know their programs and are in positions to ensure the district offers a continuum of services for students with disabilities.
  • Building Leadership: The Principals and Assistant Principals know the insides of their buildings as well as all the staff. They play a critical role in supporting the unique space needs that students with disabilities may have as it relates to instruction, related services, and behavioral needs.
  • School Nurse: The building-based nurse is the first line of defense when a medical issue arises in a building. At the building level, he or she is likely the most trained in dealing with the containment of infectious disease. They also interact with students with disabilities, both after physical restraint as well as medication administration.
  • Educator Representation: Having special education teachers from programs that require specific, special considerations may be useful in providing illustrative examples in how the guidance will come into play on-the-ground.

Be Prepared

The 2020-21 school year will likely bring unexpected challenges for which there is no playbook. Ensuring that the school district’s most vulnerable population have the supports they need to be successful will not be easy. This year will necessitate educators to follow the Scout motto: “Be Prepared.” To help in being prepared for this significant undertaking, the COVID-19 Special Education Steering Committee can play a pivotal role in supporting the implementation of newly established COVID-19 established policies and practices that may pose significant challenges to special education programs as well as the educators and administrators who support them.

How PCG Can Help During an Unprecedented Time

COVID-19 is creating significant challenges for school districts across the country. PCG is always looking for ways to support districts and students.

Special Education Research, Action Planning, and Facilitation. Subject matter experts and consultants can research best practices, inventory resources, guide action planning, and facilitate the development of digital learning instructional continuity plans to help you address emergency situations that result in interrupted education for students with disabilities.

Online Special Education Paraprofessional Courses. Whether just getting started or a seasoned paraprofessional, these courses provide practical, universal tips and strategies that can be immediately implemented. Each three-hour course is self-paced and develops knowledge and skills to better understand role and responsibilities, improve communication and collaboration, and maintain high expectations by using the right tools to support students.

Virtual Instruction Toolkit. This toolkit contains a library of tools and resources to help educators establish Online and Distance Learning instructional models based on best practices

Virtual Staffing Solutions. Provides trained professionals to augment staffing needs and work directly to support your efforts to deliver continuity of instruction and services during this emergency period using your available digital learning solutions or by providing PCG’s EDPlan™ suite of tools.

Click here to get your free copy of PCG’s Special Education Reentry Checklist!


About the Author

Matthew Korobkin, a Senior Advisor for Special Education Services based in Princeton, NJ, brings strategic planning expertise at the state and district levels in the areas of special education policy, compliance, operations, and instructional practice. Currently, Matthew focuses on supporting our national efforts in this field; performing special education program reviews as well as targeted reviews throughout the country; and working with other subject matter experts on thought leadership development.

Prior to joining PCG, Matthew was the Special Education Officer for Strategic Planning and Evaluation in the Office of the Secretary of Education at the Delaware Department of Education. As a direct report to the Secretary of Education, Matthew advised a legislated Special Education Oversight Group comprised of the Governor, Co-Chairs of the General Assembly’s Joint Finance Committee, and cabinet secretaries from the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Social Services, and the Department of Services for Children, Youth, and their Families.

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