LRE: What happens when a decades-old concept meets online schooling?

(Posted August 7, 2015)

Article by Jennifer Herseim, April 29, 2015
Excerpts from Brook Phillips, WDE Vision Outreach Services Consultant

Many people see virtual schooling as a godsend for students with disabilities.

For a student with behavioral issues, virtual programs offer an online chat box to calmly edit responses before sending them to teachers. For a service provider, virtual programs offer videoconferencing to deliver “teletherapy” to multiple students from one location. And for a parent of a child with severe allergies, such programs offer an opportunity to control the environment to ensure it is allergen-free.

However, cyber-education can be viewed as highly restrictive.

The original concept of the least restrictive environment was premised on students with disabilities being “physically” educated to the maximum extent appropriate with their nondisabled peers, says Jose Martín, school attorney with Richards, Lindsay & Martín LLP in Austin, Texas. “Neither Section 504 nor the IDEA could have envisioned the advent of online and virtual schools or the inherent differences in those programs,” Martín said.

“That makes it a little awkward to fit virtual schooling into the LRE continuum,” he said.

As a result, your teams should be able to determine when a virtual program may serve as the LRE for a particular student. Also, be prepared to discuss factors that make a virtual school more or less appropriate for a particular student, Martín suggested.

School attendance not always possible

A virtual school may be the LRE for a student when no other accommodations or supports can provide the student with FAPE in a less restrictive environment. Such was the case in S.P. v. Fairview School District 64 IDELR 99 (W.D. Pa. 09/30/14), as the student needed to remain in a dark, quiet room for 12-16 hours when he had a migraine. The district modified attendance policies for the student and allowed him to visit a refocus room where he received help completing missed work.

Despite these measures, the student couldn’t meet the revised attendance requirements and the team eventually recommended placement in a cyber-education program.

The school tried to accommodate the student in the lesser restrictive environment, but the student just wasn’t able to attend, Martín said. While a virtual school may be the LRE for this student, online programs aren’t appropriate for all students, Martín said.

Generally, a student’s 504 accommodations easily can be adapted to the virtual environment, said Nikki Callaghan, district 504/exceptional student education manager for Florida Virtual School’s full-time program. “A lot of accommodations aren’t needed anymore in our world. For example, preferential seating, that goes out the window in online education,” Callaghan said.

Because FLVS is a choice option, the district is not required to alter its program fundamentally in order to meet the needs of every student with a disability, according to a Florida Public Virtual Schools Q&A. Each time a student with a 504 plan or IEP applies to the full-time program, Callaghan and her team review the student’s plan and make recommendations as to whether the program will be appropriate. “We look at the whole picture,” she said.

Key factors to consider

Consider these factors that may make an online environment more or less appropriate for a student with a disability:

  • Self-motivation, on-task behaviors, and experience with technology.A student who needs frequent prompting may not be successful in a program where there’s no direct supervision, Martín said. On the other hand, recorded lessons may allow a student to rewind a lecture if she missed what an instructor said, Callaghan said. Students also need to be familiar with distance learning tools such as email and videoconferencing, Callaghan said. If a student has little experience with technology, Callaghan said she often recommends the student first gain experience through a part-time online program.
  • Parental participation. FLVS requires that every student have a parent or learning coach who can assist them at home, Callaghan said. “Parents and students often are shocked at the amount of reading and the communication that comes with the program,” she said. If such support isn’t available, an online program may not be feasible for the student.
  • Need for face-to-face assistance. A full-time online program isn’t appropriate if a student needs services provided in-person, Callaghan said. In FLVS, students may receive needed services such as speech therapy, OT, or mental health counseling through videoconferencing, she said. During live lessons, where a teacher instructs an online class, a student also could receive push-in services from a special educator who communicates with the student in a private chat room, she said.
  • Social skills. If a student’s receipt of FAPE depends on his interaction with peers, an online program may not be appropriate because of the lack of physical exposure to others, Martín said. Conversely, some students benefit from a less intimidating environment online, Callaghan said. “We’re finding that a lot of kids like the environment because it’s not invasive,” she said. A student with autism may feel more comfortable communicating with an adult or peers through email, then through text, and eventually be able to communicate in person with peers during a field trip or club meeting, Callaghan said.
  • Nontraditional schedules. Many students with medical conditions who cannot attend school during regular hours find an online program more appropriate than a brick-and-mortar school or homebound placement, Callaghan said. “If a student is able to work in the evening, or if he’s up at 3 a.m., all of his assignments, instruction, and quizzes are available when he’s ready to learn,” she said.

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