Feds Say Virtual Schools Need to Follow Special Ed Rules

Even when the education is delivered online, schools and districts ought to adhere to the needs of children with disabilities. That was the message recently delivered in a "Dear Colleague" letter issued to virtual schools by the U.S. Department of Education.

The letter, which emphasizes that the agency isn't creating or imposing "new legal requirements," is intended to help state education agencies and districts meet their existing obligations under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Among the responsibilities covered in the document are these two:

  • "Child find responsibilities," which require schools to identify, locate and evaluate students in need of special education and related services. This stipulation may "present unique challenges," the agency acknowledged, since students attending virtual schools may not have the "same degree of face-to-face interactions" with teachers or other school staff, making identification difficult. The letter recommends that the district come up with "additional ways" to identify candidates, such as screenings and parent or teacher questionnaires.
  • Responsibility for providing "free appropriate public education." Here, the dilemma is figuring out which entity is responsible for delivering the education. As the letter noted, typically, the district where the student's family resides is accountable for making the schooling available. But oftentimes, the state itself is the local education agency running or contracting with the virtual school. In those scenarios, the guidance suggests, the state is the final arbiter for deciding who's responsible.

Those duties, for example, include developing and carrying out the individualized education program (IEP) for the student and making the student is educated in "the least restrictive environment," — in other words, alongside peers without disabilities.

The agency closed its letter with a notice that it would be issuing additional guidance to address "more specific" questions in the future. It solicited feedback at [email protected].

The letter is available on the Education Department website here.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.