- In a letter to state special education leaders focused on the needs of "highly mobile children" the U.S. Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services on Thursday said school systems need to provide "timely and expedited evaluations and eligibility determinations" for any of these students suspected of having a disability that impacts their learning. The letter defines highly mobile children as those who are connected with military families, or are migratory, homeless or in the foster care system.
- The 11-page letter, which came in response to concerns from stakeholders, includes resources on response to intervention approaches before an evaluation is complete and the use of comparable special education services for students new to a district.
- Students who move frequently, particularly those with disabilities, can face challenges such as difficulty communicating their needs to an unfamiliar school and district. OSERS said the intent of its letter is to ensure the educational stability of highly mobile students with disabilities.
This letter is the latest in a series of guidance to state and local school systems from the federal special education office emphasizing that hardships such as the COVID-19 pandemic and frequent student transfers are unacceptable excuses for not meeting requirements under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Indeed, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when many schools switched to remote learning, it became difficult to provide some special education services, including evaluations. The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights opened investigations into several school systems, including Los Angeles Unified School District, to determine if they violated civil rights laws by limiting special education services during remote learning.
The recent letter from OSERS provided resources for supporting each subgroup of highly mobile students with disabilities. It also raised two main issues regarding special education services for highly mobile students:
- The need for timely and expedited evaluations and eligibility determinations. IDEA requires districts to complete an initial evaluation within 60 days of receiving parental consent for an assessment. States may have shorter deadlines.
These deadlines still apply even if a student transfers to a new district when an evaluation has begun but not been completed. In that case, the student's former and current district must work together to complete the evaluation, the OSERS letter said.
Part of this effort should be the prompt exchange of student records relevant to the student's new enrollment, including existing evaluation records. "We strongly encourage school districts to complete their evaluations of highly mobile children within expedited time frames (e.g., within 30 days to the extent possible), consistent with each highly mobile child’s individual needs, whenever possible," the letter said.
Additionally, the student's new district may not delay the evaluation process so that it can use response to intervention or multi-tiered systems of support approaches, known as MTSS, to determine students' needs. Instead, the evaluation and MTSS can occur simultaneously.
- The use of comparable services during the summer. Whether a student with an individualized education program moves to a new district in or out of state, the new district must provide special education services comparable to services the student received in their former district until the new district adopts the current IEP or develops its own.
In some cases, students' IEPs offer extended school year services, which can include instruction and supports over the summer. OSERS said districts must provide these summer services when such students transfer to a new district during the summer.
"While the determination of comparable services is made on an individual basis, the new school district’s IEP Team may not arbitrarily, or due to limited availability, decrease the level of services to be provided to the child as comparable services," the letter said.