School is the hottest topic right now among parents, especially now that districts are beginning to share their fall re-opening plans. With each announcement comes loads of questions, assumptions, and of course, opinions. I don’t know what the right answer is, but I know one thing for certain: in some states, parents of children who have IEPs don’t have the option to homeschool their children without some potentially serious consequences. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 14% of students have an individualized education program.
Many parents are talking how they are “just going to homeschool” their kids this fall. They feel that sending their kids into classrooms wearing masks, practicing social distancing, and constantly sanitizing their hands isn’t enough. Other parents believe the precautions are completely over-the-top, and there’s no way they’re sending their children into such a stringent environment. No matter where you stand on how schools should handle the coronavirus pandemic, if your child has an IEP, there’s a chance of them losing that plan if you opt to homeschool. It all depends on your state, and in some cases, even your specific district.
First, let’s be clear. Homeschooling isn’t e-schooling, remote-learning, or distance-learning. Homeschooling is where the parent completely takes charge of their child’s education, and the child isn’t enrolled in public or private school. E-schooling, remote-learning, or distance-learning (whatever you want to call it) is a partnership with your child’s school to continue their education with the direction, guidance, and support of the public or private school. Not all districts are offering families the option of e-learning, but if they do, choosing this route for a student with an IEP has its own hurdles.
IEPs, also known as Individualized Education Programs, are issued to students whose special needs fit into one of thirteen categories. Some of the categories are a specific learning disability (SLD), autism, and a hearing or vision impairment. An IEP entitles a child to a Free and Appropriate Public Education. An ISP is an Individualized Service Plan and can be issued, in conjunction with the student’s public school district, to provide students with disabilities assistance.
According to the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), public schools are obligated to identify and evaluate children with disabilities, and put together an IEP if necessary which outlines the services that should be provided based on the child’s specific needs. However, even though the public school helps develop the IEP, it can be essentially useless if the district doesn’t make the required services available to the homeschooling student (some do, depending on their own availability of resources; this is another factor that varies widely among districts).
In some states, homeschools are considered private or charter schools, in which case a portion of federal IDEA funding is earmarked for things like IEP services. You can find your state’s specific homeschooling regulations here.
Yes, parents of children with special needs might have the option of outside-the-school services, such as private speech therapy. The issue is that not all insurance plans cover these therapies. The out-of-pocket expenses can be astronomical. Additionally, parents must have the time and reliable transportation to take their child to the therapy sessions, sometimes multiple times per week. There also aren’t a few (or sometimes any) therapy centers in rural areas, and even if there is a therapy center in a convenient location, may have an extensive waitlist.
This puts parents of children with special needs, including myself, in a tough position. If homeschooling is even an option for us given our individual situations, choosing to homeschool means that our children may lose school-issued plans that are essential to their physical health, academic progress, and development, including social, mental, and emotional. Schools provide therapies such as speech, physical, and occupational based on the student’s needs. They also might create and implement a behavioral plan, contact with the school social worker, and accommodations. Accommodations are adjustments allowed for the student to make sure that they have access to their education in the same way their peers do. Examples include preferential classroom seating, a chewy pencil topper, extra time to complete tests, or assistive technology. Some children with a specialized plan receive some, a lot, or all of their academic instruction in the special education setting.
A parent of a child with special needs can’t “just” homeschool. Doing so means potentially giving up on our child’s carefully curated plan, the one our child relies on. Homeschooling is a gamble, especially for the parent who has never homeschooled before. I’m certainly not saying it cannot be done, but homeschooling is hardly easy, and it can be even more challenging when teaching a child with special needs. Most of us aren’t special education teachers, therapists, or social workers, holding a degree in the unique skill set necessary to properly educate our children.
For those of us who are fearful for our child’s or family’s physical health, we have a difficult choice to make. If we live within a state or district that doesn’t offer services to homeschooled kids, do we risk letting our children’s hard-earned and much-deserved plan dissipate in order to decrease our child and family’s risk of getting the virus? Or do we opt to cling to the IEP despite the multiple challenges and risks of in-person or distance learning?
Many of my friends have children with special needs like we do. The schooling choice, like the many that we have to make right now, isn’t easy. We all feel like we’re backed into a corner, and no matter what we decide, it’s damned-if-we-do, damned-if-we-don’t. When it comes to our children, especially kids who might be more vulnerable to the changes made because of COVID-19, there’s nothing we won’t do. How do we know what’s best when things seem to change by the hour?
I’ve been asking myself some honest questions lately. Can I meet my child’s needs at home? Is it realistic to homeschool? What happens if we opt for distance-learning? How will my child’s IEP be followed in the home setting versus the school setting? What about my other children? We’re a big family, and there are six of us to think about.
Choosing to homeschool and to do it well, to fully meet the needs of a child with special needs, is certainly a privilege. However, it is absolutely still demanding and difficult, with one major sacrifice being made. Foregoing an IEP, one that may have taken years to establish, is devastating. There really isn’t an easy answer, but parents like me know that what matters most is that our kids stay healthy and safe.
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