The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) today issued guidance in the form of a Dear Colleague Letter to states to ensure students with disabilities attending public virtual schools are getting the special education and supports that they deserve and is their right. The guidance focuses on specific requirements in the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) for public virtual schools. IDEA is the law that guarantees the right to a public education for America’s nearly 6.7 million students with disabilities.
Over the last decade, there has been a proliferation of educational models involving varying degrees of in-person and online instruction and practice. Today’s guidance addresses the supervision responsibilities of states and the applicability of IDEA’s child find provisions to children attending public virtual schools. The letter also clarifies states’ responsibility to provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to children with disabilities attending public virtual schools.
“Children with disabilities attending virtual schools have the same right to a free appropriate public education as children attending brick and mortar schools,” said OSERS Acting Assistant Secretary Sue Swenson. “States and school districts must ensure that children with disabilities are getting the special education and supports that they need to be successful in school.”
Virtual public schools, including virtual charter schools, must be held to high standards and be accountable to the students and families they serve. The Department is releasing this guidance today to emphasize the importance of ensuring oversight, transparency and accountability for these schools. The most important feature of any school is the quality of the learning experience for students. The Department’s goal continues to be to ensure that all students—particularly those traditionally underserved—receive a high-quality public education.
Among the letter’s key points:
- The educational rights and protections afforded to children with disabilities and their parents under IDEA must not be diminished or compromised when children with disabilities attend virtual schools.
- States are responsible for ensuring that all school districts, including virtual schools that operate as school districts, implement the requirements of IDEA.
- To ensure FAPE to children with disabilities in virtual schools, each school district must implement the evaluation, eligibility, individualized education program (IEP) and least restrictive environment requirements under IDEA.
- Each state also must have policies and procedures that ensure that children with disabilities who attend virtual schools are included in all general state and district-wide assessment programs, including assessments with appropriate accommodations and alternate assessments, where necessary and as indicated in their respective IEPs.
- In addition, each state and school district, must have child find policies and procedures in effect to ensure that all children with disabilities residing in the state, including those who attend virtual schools, who are in need of special education and related services, regardless of the severity of their disability, are identified, located, and evaluated.
- School districts, including virtual schools that operate as school districts, should review the state’s child find policies and procedures as well as their own implementing policies, procedures, and practices to ensure that children with disabilities who attend virtual schools are identified, located, and evaluated.
OSERS currently funds the Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities to research how online learning can be made more accessible. The center also identifies promising practices for K-12 children with disabilities by investigating approaches that address variations in student learning styles within the range of online learning options.