Updated: May 11, 2021
Even in these days of social distancing, the rules for special education still apply. Here’s a handy guide for how to refer your preschool or school aged child for a speech-language evaluation with your public school.
This handout includes a flowchart that summarizes the steps I described in my March 14 blog post about the steps you can take to refer your child and what to do if your district wants to delay or decline the testing process.
Since then the world has turned upside-down with social distancing, home schooling and working from home. Did you miss your chance to have an evaluation done at your school? Will you have to wait until who-knows-when to get services for your child’s speech-language?
You shouldn’t have to wait till everything is “back to normal” before you get help for your child. School districts are handling these big social changes in many different ways, but the rules for special education have not changed.
Special education services are regulated by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Official guidance from the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) has reinforced the need for special education services to continue.
I don’t want to give the impression that your school is shirking their duties during this time. I have marveled at the fortitude and ingenuity that school staff have shown as they make this overnight transition to providing services to children at home. It’s been a lot to figure out, with very little guidance and resources.
So as you pursue services that your child needs, remember that your school staff are as stressed and overworked as you are. Persist in your efforts but be flexible in how you might work together to solve problems and make plans to meet your child’s needs.
DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION GUIDANCE
Schools must continue to provide FAPE.
FAPE means free appropriate public education. The term is shorthand for the evaluation and IEP process and the legal rights that go along with special education services.
DOE has not given any indication that it’s okay to make a blanket statement like, We’re not going to do any testing until next year. They have stated: “School districts must provide a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) consistent with the need to protect the health and safety of students with disabilities and those individuals providing education, specialized instruction, and related services to these students.”
Online services are acceptable
DOE states, “FAPE may include, as appropriate, special education and related services provided through distance instruction provided virtually, online, or telephonically.”
There are many tests, parent interviews, questionnaires and other activities that can be used for an online evaluation. In addition, districts may choose to adopt any test results you have from outside sources. In the majority of situations, it's possible to complete an initial evaluation with telepractice (two-way video).
The decision of whether or not to act on a parent’s referral must be a team decision based on the specific needs of your child. You and the rest of the team need to decide what is feasible. According to IDEA rules, the district needs to promptly respond to your request for an evaluation. You should expect, at a minimum, that a plan will be made for what testing is needed and when it will be completed.
Some delays or service interruptions must be compensated
DOE knows that some services will be delayed or interrupted due to the current health crisis. They state, “IEP teams must make an individualized determination whether and to what extent compensatory services may be needed when schools resume normal operations.”
You can think of compensatory services as make-up services. For example, if IEP services were not given to a student for three months, the district might have to arrange for that number of additional sessions to be provided. Sometimes these extra sessions are added into a child’s school week, and sometimes they are provided over the summer.
Not all students are automatically eligible for compensatory services. This is supposed to be an IEP team decision, based on the individual child’s needs and the effects of missing the services.
If there's a delay in completing an evaluation, it’s hard to measure the effect that had on a child’s development. Nevertheless, the IEP team should consider if and how an “extra dose” of services could make up for some of the delay in starting services.
A class-action lawsuit against the Hawaii Department of Education was filed in Federal Court this week. Attorneys representing the state’s 30,000 students with IEPs are asking the state to act now to set up procedures for deciding how to determine the need for compensatory services for each student. The goal is to avoid legal battles and inconsistent decision-making when regular school services resume.
HOW TO REQUEST A SPECIAL EDUCATION EVALUATION NOW
The procedure for requesting an evaluation remains the same, except that you will need to mail or email your request instead of delivering it in person. I recommend email because this gives a record of when you sent it and it’s easier to get a reply that shows when they received it.
Fill out this request for evaluation form. Send it to your school district’s Director of Special Education. You can find their contact information on the district’s website. If you can’t find a person, send the request to the Superintendent of Schools requesting that the form be routed to the appropriate person.
If you don't hear from the district within 10 days of your request, call and ask the status of your request. Get the name and contact information of the person who will be coordinating the evaluation process.
In most cases, you will be contacted about your referral and testing will be scheduled. Read my March 14 post for a better understanding of the evaluation process.
If the district does not want to do testing, ask them to put their response in writing on a Prior Written Notice form. Ask them to describe the options they considered and reasons those were rejected. Requesting this documentation accomplishes three things:
1. The district's reasons for not testing may give you a foundation for appealing the decision.
2. You have dated documentation of the decision (along with your dated request for evaluation). If you later ask for compensatory services, you’ll have dates for counting how long services were delayed.
3. The district is now aware that you understand your due process rights. This might help them decide that it is easier to do the testing now rather than have a drawn-out process later.
It’s up to you if you want to pursue an evaluation now. You know best about your child’s needs and how this issue fits into your family’s current situation. Hopefully the information here will help smooth out some potential bumps in the road if your child needs an evaluation now.