Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services (OSERS) Issues Guidance Re: Children with Disabilities in Virtual Schools

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The U.S. Department of Education, through OSERS, has issued a "Dear Colleague Letter" addressing the responsibilities of state education agencies (SEAs) and school districts regarding students with disabilities enrolled in virtual or online schools.  

The requirements of the IDEA apply to students with disabilities enrolled in virtual schools. Virtual schools are defined as: "a public school that offers only virtual courses: instruction in which children and teachers are separated by time and/or location. In addition, interaction occurs via computers and/or telecommunications technologies, and the school generally does not have a physical facility that allows children to attend classes on-site."

The letter notes specific areas of concern and urges SEAs and districts to be sure they have policies regarding and are in compliance with IDEA requirements relating to:

  1. Monitoring virtual schools compliance with the IDEA;
  2. Timely collecting and reporting of data related to children with disabilities enrolled in virtual schools;
  3. Establishing and maintaining qualified personnel to serve students with disabilities in virtual schools and ensuring staff have adequate training and support;
  4. Making sure dispute resolution procedures are available to ensure the implementation of procedural safeguards, mediation and due process hearing procedures, and state complaints, and
  5. Ensuring the confidentiality of personally identifiable data, information, and records.

The letter also notes the application of child find requirements for students enrolled in virtual schools. It points out that there may be unique challenges regarding child find in virtual schools: 

"children who attend virtual schools generally may not have the same degree of face-to-face interactions and in-person contacts with a teacher or other school staff as children who attend brick and mortar schools, child find for children attending virtual schools may present unique challenges.  It is not uncommon for the child’s teacher to be the first person to suspect that the child may have a disability and to be the person to refer that child for an evaluation. Where the practices of the virtual school, whether it is an LEA or operated by an LEA, limit or prevent the teacher’s interaction and contacts with a child, the SEA’s child find policies should suggest additional ways that LEAs can meet this IDEA responsibility for children attending virtual schools (e.g., screenings to identify children who might need to be referred for an evaluation and questionnaires filled out by virtual school teachers and staff and children’s parents). In general, reliance on referrals by parents should not be the primary vehicle for meeting IDEA’s child find requirements."

Additionally, the letter notes that some virtual schools are charter schools and that the IDEA  requirements apply to virtual charter schools. Finally the letter notes that the specific IDEA requirements regarding evaluation, providing FAPE, the developing and implementation of IEPs, and least restrictive environment apply to children with disabilities enrolled in virtual schools.

Click Here to Read the Full Dear Colleague Letter

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