Initial special education evaluations are being delayed, and special education services included in individual education plans are not being implemented fully or in a timely manner for children with disabilities in Head Start, according to the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Head Start.
This is particularly true since the pandemic, the departments said in an Oct. 5 joint Dear Colleague letter sent to district special education directors, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act coordinators, and Head Start grant recipients.
The letter also warns that the educational placement decisions being made are not always the least restrictive ones, as required by IDEA, according to data and other information the departments have collected.
"You have worked incredibly hard to meet the individual needs of all children, including children with disabilities and their families, during the COVID-19 pandemic," wrote Valerie Williams, director of the Office of Special Education Programs at the Education Department, and Katie Hamm, acting director of the Office of Head Start at HHS.
However, they reminded districts and Head Start grant recipients that young children with disabilities and their families have been disproportionately affected by service disruptions. Williams and Hamm added that socioeconomic challenges have further affected the children and families they serve.
"Additionally, families and providers continue to express concern and frustration with delays and inconsistencies in identification and evaluation processes, service delivery in inclusive programs, and transition into different services, as well as the expectations programs have for their child," according to separate but related guidance released alongside the Dear Colleague letter on Oct. 5.
Despite pandemic disruptions and these challenges, Williams and Hamm reminded districts and Head Start recipients that no part of IDEA has been waived, and that districts and their partners must provide special education and related services — which have also seen delays — to eligible preschool-aged children with disabilities.
In the guidance document, the Education Department said state and local leaders should prioritize creating memorandums of understanding to spell out how they will collaborate on a "seamless and coordinated inclusive system."
The letter confirms, in part, warnings from special education advocates and experts early on in the pandemic that students with disabilities were falling behind in the services they are entitled to under federal law.
An Education Department investigation into Los Angeles Public Schools earlier this year, for example, showed the district failed to provide IEP services and Section 504 plans during remote learning.
Specifically for younger students with disabilities, early intervention and services have shown to help minimize developmental delays.