Online Resources to Help Your Understand Your Child’s Special Education Rights and Services During the COVID-19 Outbreak

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

COVID-19 school closures have left parents of children with special needs, particularly those with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), feeling uncertain about their child’s rights and their school’s responsibility during this unique time. School district responses to COVID-19 continue to evolve rapidly, with most schools currently planning to stay closed until April or May, and others now closed for the remainder of the school year (check out this map to see the latest school closures by state). 

Since these closures happened quickly and with very little planning, many districts are still working through their remote education plans. In the meantime, some schools have not assigned any work, many have sent home assignment packets, and others are providing some form of online learning. For children with IEPs, their special needs may directly impact their ability to learn at home via these improvised formats.

The current situation is unprecedented, and schools are adapting as quickly as possible. Most schools, even those that have already instituted online learning programs, are still working out the kinks for all children in the general education population. Once schools are on more solid footing with their overall programming, they will likely begin focusing on adapting and tailoring these programs to meet the needs of children with IEPs.

For parents looking for information specific to the rights that children with IEPs have under the current circumstances, and the direction that school districts are being given about how to implement special education accommodations and services, the U.S. Department of Education website is your best source of information. Once programs and accommodations start rolling out, your child’s school district and your State Department of Education websites will also become key online resources.  

The U.S. Department of Education’s website can be overwhelming, so when looking for up-to-date information, focus on these three resources:

  1. IDEA (Individuals with Disability Act) Coronavirus Q & A webpage. This is currently the most useful website for special education policy updates.
  2. Online Education and Website Accessibility webinar. This 7-minute video created by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights give an overview of online education accessibility for students with special needs.
  3. Supplemental Fact Sheet: Addressing the Risk of COVID-19 in Preschool, Elementary and Secondary Schools While Serving Children with Disabilities. This fact sheet, also created by the Office of Civil Rights, summarizes the guidance being given to states and school districts specific to special education services.

There’s a lot of information embedded in these resources, but here are a few key take-away points:

  • “If [a district] closes its schools to slow or stop the spread of COVID-19 and does not provide any educational services to the general student population, then [a district] would not be required to provide services to students with disabilities during that same period of time.” – IDEA Coronavirus Q & A webpage.
  • If [a district] continues to provide educational opportunities to the general student population during a school closure, the school must ensure that students with disabilities also have equal access to the same opportunities, including the provision of a free appropriate public education." – IDEA Coronavirus Q & A webpage.
  • “The Department [of Education] understands that there may be exceptional circumstances that could affect how a particular service is provided. If a student does not receive services after an extended period of time, the student’s IEP Team, or appropriate personnel under Section 504, must make an individualized determination whether and to what extent compensatory services are needed consistent with the respective applicable requirements, including to make up for any skills that may have been lost.” – Supplemental Fact Sheet
  • “The Department [of Education] understands that, during this national emergency, schools may not be able to provide all services in the same manner they are typically provided… Many disability-related modifications and services may be effectively provided online. It is important to emphasize that federal disability law allows for flexibility in determining how to meet the individual needs of students with disabilities.” – Supplemental Fact Sheet

Responses to the COVID-19 outbreak will continue to evolve over time, with many differences from school to school and district to district. In addition to staying up to date with online resources, reach out to your child’s school if possible and discuss any concerns you may have. It will take time for schools to adjust to this unprecedented situation, so you may not get clear answers right away. But with patience and open lines of communication, you should eventually be able to work with your child’s school to develop a plan that meets your child’s unique needs.


Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.


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