July 15th, 2021

Evaluating Children for Special Education During COVID-19 and Beyond

Practice and Policy Considerations to Mitigate COVID-Related Challenges

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools are grappling with the impact of the widespread instructional loss that most students have experienced. Some students have also experienced stress, disruptions at home, and trauma, and historically marginalized populations are likely to be most impacted academically. Even where educators, school administrators, and caregivers worked to deliver high-quality instruction to all children, many children with learning and attention issues received fewer supports, accommodations and services that they rely on to access general education curriculum in virtual or remote instruction.

As a result of these compounding effects, school and district administrators are preparing for an increase in referrals for initial evaluations for special education and new requests to add additional services to children’s existing Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).  In addition to a backlog created by out-of-school time and remote education, the dislocation, trauma and loss caused by the pandemic add complicating factors to an already challenging eligibility process. It will be more complex for schools to determine eligibility for special education as they must seek to determine if a disability is the primary cause of a student’s academic, social, emotional, or behavioral challenges. If not done carefully, districts face a risk of misidentifying students as needing special education when, in fact, they are in need of instruction and support that can mitigate the impact of the pandemic.

School and district administrators are exploring how to manage this compounding and unprecedented challenge. They must keep in mind the core components of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) when referring a child for special education and making decisions about placement and services for each child. It will also be important to make significant investments in providing high-quality instruction, evidence-based intervention, behavioral supports, and meaningful family engagement to help students reintegrate into their learning environments and to make appropriate decisions about the special education evaluation process.

To help districts navigate these complex challenges, NCLD has developed briefs to inform state and district policies and practices: 

Obligations to locate, evaluate, and serve students with disabilities.

Brief #1

Creating inclusive environments.

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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