Meeting Free Appropriate Public Education and Least Restrictive Environment Requirements for Students With Disabilities During the Coronavirus-19 Pandemic: Implications for Special Education Directors
Vogel, Linda R.
Cohen, Michael I.
Pierce, Corey D.
Correa-Torres, Silvia M.
College of Education and Behavioral Studies; Department of Leadership, Policy and Development, Educational Leadership and Policy Studies
University of Northern Colorado
Type of Resources
Place of Publication
University of Northern Colorado
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 2004) addresses educational access in a brick-and-mortar setting but does not specifically address how to meet the parameters of free appropriate public education (FAPE) and least restrictive environment (LRE) in an online or virtual setting. An increased desire by students with disabilities and their parents to select online learning, coupled with the Coronavirus (COVID)-19 global pandemic, prompted many school districts to pivot to remote learning for an extended period and disrupted the traditional educational system (Molnar et al., 2021). This phenomenological research study elevated the lived experiences of special education directors during the COVID-19 pandemic when schools were forced to shift learning models. The purpose of this study was to explore special education directors’ perspectives of how they met the requirements of providing a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE) for students with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic when schools had to change their instructional models. Furthermore, the study allowed the researcher to gain insight into the perspectives of special education directors regarding the innovations that improved educational practices and outcomes for students with disabilities and the challenges and barriers that surfaced during this emergency shift to online learning. Constructivism guided this study by exploring the perceptions of six special education directors. Each director brought their own experiences, beliefs, and values. which shaped their actions and brought to life their efforts to meet student needs against barriers that surfaced throughout the phases of the COVID-19 pandemic. By deeply exploring the experience of each participant, the researcher gained insight into the situations the participants encountered to understand their individual actions regarding how they met FAPE and LRE for students with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic while also identifying the essence of the common experience. Purposeful snowball sampling was used to identify participants within the researcher’s professional network who were current special education directors in urban, suburban, and rural locations in Colorado who held that role during the 2019-2020, 2020-2021, and 2021-2022 school years with a minimum of three years of previous experience. Qualitative data were drawn from three different sources: interviews, artifacts, and a researcher’s journal. Interview transcripts, newspaper and website publications, and personal artifacts created by the participants during the data collection were gathered, analyzed, and coded for major themes. The data analysis revealed the special education directors in this study were able to meet the requirements of FAPE and LRE for students with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic with a focus on legal obligations, creativity in learning models, and communication across the multidisciplinary team. Special education directors also identified a need to re-evaluate the concepts of LRE moving forward, especially related to prior written notices and contingency plans, multidisciplinary team decisions, and the parent’s role. Additionally, the special education directors in this study shared their perceptions regarding the innovations that improved educational practices and outcomes for students with disabilities and the challenges and barriers that surfaced during this unprecedented time. The themes of improved systemic efficiencies, technology improved and enhanced the field, and relationships and partnerships strengthened emerged related to the innovations that improved educational practices and outcomes for students with disabilities throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Five themes—feelings of ambiguity and uncertainty, effective implementation of student Individualized Educational Programs, challenges with families, barriers that impacted staffing, and negative impacts for students with disabilities—were revealed regarding challenges and barriers that surfaced during emergency shifts to online learning throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
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