Virtual School During a Pandemic

by Attorneys Robert W. Burns and Abby S. Busler

The current COVID-19 health emergency has confronted school districts with a wide variety of serious challenges.  School districts moved to virtual education on March 18, 2020.  Governor Evers and Secretary of Health Designee, Andrea Palm, extended the Safer At Home order and closed schools for the remainder of the school year.  As this virtual school setting continues through the end of this school year, and potentially into the next school year, school administrators must consider the implications associated with virtual education and continue to adapt and be innovative.  

Special Education 

Recently, the United States Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos did not recommend that Congress pass any additional waiver authority concerning the Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) and Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Secretary DeVos urged school districts to continue to be creative with their provision of FAPE during this pandemic and online learning.  

During virtual learning, schools are not required to completely overhaul or make mandatory modifications to student IEPs in light of coronavirus-related closures and other issues. IEP teams, rather, must make determinations for modifications, if any, on a case-by-case basis. Student IEPs might require modifications if a student requires specific changes to his/her goals or specialized services. If the team determines a student’s IEP must be modified, then the team must either host a meeting virtually, using some type of online format or teleconference, or receive written consent to modify the IEP without a meeting. It is not necessary to undertake modifying every student’s IEP to address virtual learning, as school is closed for all students, who all have moved to virtual learning. 

But not every special education student is alike – each student requires a unique IEP with specialized goals, education and services. Therefore, services during this online and virtual education environment require creativity and innovative ideas. The Department of Education and DPI do not mandate specific methodologies; instead, both recommend collaboration and consideration of practices such as distance instruction, tele-therapy and tele-intervention, meetings held on digital platforms, and online options for data tracking and documentation. School districts should also consider non-virtual or online based instruction options, too, including instructional packets, projects and written assignments. 

Schools can utilize the alternative options for IEP meetings and modify and update IEPs if current services cannot be provided at this time. Schools should review student goals and services and communicate with parents on what services are, and are not, being provided at this time. Not all IEPs will require changes, but communication is critical during this time, and schools should continue documenting any and all changes and updating parents as necessary. Documenting these communications and services provided during the virtual school period will help schools determine whether compensatory services are needed when in-school education resumes. Schools should make every effort to comply with the timelines stated in the law, but know that both the state and federal governments are understanding the practical challenges facing districts during this time. 

Preparations for Fall

Unfortunately, it is currently unclear how and when schools will reopen this fall.  Experts remain hopeful that schools will reopen with in person classes in September 2020.  As the 2019-2020 school year comes to an end virtually, school administrators have the opportunity to review what worked and ways to improve for the 2020-2021 school year.  Here is a list of a few areas school administrators should consider when planning for the end of year and beyond:

  • Accessibility to technology.  Are all students able to access and participate in school virtually? Does the district require additional technology supplies to further support its students?
  • Accountability tracking.  Are students accessing the curriculum and completing their assignments?
  • Supporting school staff.  Do teachers require additional resources to better connect with their students? Are teachers able to effectively communicate with parents?
  • Effectiveness of and protocols for staff teleconference meetings
  • Student mental health support.
  • Meals for students. Practical considerations for student free and reduced lunches, delivery, pickup, etc. 

Last, principals should continue to monitor student privacy and confidentiality concerns that arise during this virtual time.  DPI addresses options for safe teleconferencing and lists various providers that schools may consider.  

School principals continue to innovate and adapt to best serve their students even during this virtual time.  The essence of schools is teamwork and collaboration. Principals have taken a leading role in continuing to fulfill their schools’ missions. That has been evident over the last few weeks and will continue as we all work toward the same goal: keeping kids first and remembering that we are in this together. 

*This article was written by Attorneys Robert W. Burns and Abby S. Busler of Davis & Kuelthau, s.c. The views expressed herein are exclusively those of Mr. Burns and Ms. Busler. This article was designed to provide general authoritative information and commentary as a service to AWSA members. It should not be relied upon as legal advice. You are encouraged to contact your district legal counsel should you require legal advice regarding this topic.  You may also direct your Level I legal questions to Malina Piontek at 608-497-3037 or [email protected]