July 15th, 2021

BRIEF 1: State and District Obligations to Locate, Evaluate, and Serve Children With Disabilities

The rights of children suspected of having a disability and the process to evaluate them for special education are just two of the many components in our nation’s special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Children eligible for special education have the right to a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE). This means that districts must continue to provide FAPE and LRE for all children with disabilities, regardless of school disruptions. FAPE must include access to instruction and interventions (whether virtual or in-person) that allow a child to achieve ambitious goals commensurate with their abilities. Instruction of students with disabilities must be provided alongside their peers without disabilities as much as possible.

During the pandemic, IDEA remained in place. No waivers were granted to states or districts. States were and are required to comply with their obligations to locate, evaluate, and serve any eligible child with a disability. Despite this, the implementation of IDEA varied across the country. Many children with disabilities did not receive the specially designed instruction and services guaranteed in their Individualized Education Program (IEP).

At the same time, virtual and blended instruction has given caregivers a new perspective into their child’s education. Parents and caregivers now better understand their children’s strengths and areas of growth, what activities and environments are most challenging, and what interventions are most effective. The collaboration between caregivers and schools varied by district, by school, and even by educator. In some instances, the caregivers and districts had robust conversations about how to ensure that the child had access to FAPE despite the health and safety concerns caused by COVID-19. In other instances, caregivers struggled to receive clear information and effective solutions.

As schools fully reopen and recover from the pandemic, districts will need to consider how to provide services that children may have missed out on due to COVID-related school disruptions, as well as how to meet any new or increased needs that students receiving special education may have developed in the last year. Districts must keep in mind the core components of IDEA when making decisions about referring a child for special education and when determining the appropriate placement and services for each child deemed eligible for special education. These include: 

Ensure that free appropriate public education (FAPE) is afforded in any setting. 

Every child with a disability has a right to FAPE and must have equal access to education. A student’s IEP should be implemented as written, whether in a virtual or in-person setting, until a team of education professionals can reconvene to update the IEP or conduct a reevaluation. A child’s current IEP — or the district’s delay in updating a child’s IEP — must not prevent a district from providing a child with a disability equal access to the learning environments offered to children in general education. Teams of education professionals and caregivers must work together to determine the most appropriate instructional placement for a child and make decisions about how each child will resume a learning environment that is best suited to maximizing learning.

Consider least restrictive environment (LRE) when making decisions.

When establishing school schedules or student groupings that follow health and safety standards, teams of education professionals should abide by IDEA’s requirement to ensure that children with disabilities are educated in the least restrictive environment that allows them to make adequate educational progress. As many districts try to prioritize students with disabilities for in-person instruction and increase their access to live instruction and services, it is important to ensure that students with disabilities are not segregated from their peers based on their disability status alone. Instead, decisions should be made on an individual basis as to what kind of learning environment is most appropriate for each child, with a goal of increasing time spent with non-disabled peers. And after in-person instruction resumes, a child may not be moved to or asked to continue with virtual learning due to behavioral issues. 

Revisit IEPs to make sure they are aligned to grade-level standards.

Teams of education professionals, working with caregivers, should review individual IEPs as the next school year’s instruction resumes to ensure that each IEP is aligned to grade-level standards and provides additional or new services to compensate for academic and social-emotional challenges.

Reestablish instruction and interventions.

Carefully consider eligibility in the referral and evaluation process given new considerations due to COVID-19.

While districts are working to mitigate COVID-related challenges related to special education evaluation and to appropriately identify and develop services for children eligible for special education, they must also consider their existing obligations to students already receiving special education services. For more information on the core components of IDEA and district obligations under federal law, refer to:

Additional Resources:

Evaluating Children for Special Education


Creating an inclusive environment.

Brief #2

Effectively managing special education evaluations.

Brief #3

Parent & Caregiver Guide

Special education evaluations.

This project has been made possible in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative DAF, an advised fund of Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

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