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By ELLEN A. CALLEGARY and JAMES SILVER FOR THE BALTIMORE SUN |JUL 27, 2020

When Maryland schools closed in March, remote learning was tough for many students and teachers — but for 4-year-old “Jamal,” it was catastrophic.

Jamal, a student with an autism spectrum disorder, exploded when he heard the familiar voice of his special educator speaking from a computer. After weeks of Jamal tearing apart school materials and raging over the remote instruction, his family and his teachers decided that — in spite of the hours of instruction required by his Individualized Education Program (or IEP) — he would not participate in remote learning. With our support, Jamal is now receiving in home 1-to-1 behavior support through a special Medicaid-funded program supervised by a board-certified behavior analyst.

We are attorneys who work with families of students with disabilities, to help them obtain the services necessary for their children to receive an appropriate education. We also both have family members working in public schools, and family members who are students in public schools.

As a result, we know that the question of how school can start for the 2020 school year is vexing for all students. It can be an especially traumatic question for families of children with disabilities.

The Maryland State Department of Education has issued guidance to local school systems, instructing those school systems to implement IEPs to the fullest extent possible during distance learning. Even when students cannot receive in-person services, they are still legally entitled to a free appropriate public education. While schools are closed, the school system should develop an Individualized Continuity of Learning Plan, based on an individual student’s IEP and needs. When students are able to return to schools, the school system should determine what additional or different services each student needs to address any decline in skills or lack of progress during distance learning.

There are practical tips that parents with children with disabilities can follow:

As school systems consider instruction during the upcoming school year, it is crucial that they follow science and implement the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. All students and staff, including students with disabilities, would need to wear face coverings and maintain social distancing.

However, some students have disabilities that may make it impossible for them to follow such guidance. All options should be creatively considered including in-person instruction in their homes so that they may benefit from their education. The racial inequities and socioeconomic disparities in our communities also impact families with disabilities who may not have access to adequate technology and whose schools may have aging infrastructure requiring greater investments to make them safe.

The U.S. House of Representatives has already passed the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act or HEROES Act. That bill could provide much-needed funding to supplement school systems response to the coronavirus pandemic. That bill, and others, awaits a vote by the U.S. Senate.

We ask that anyone connected with our public schools, especially family members of students with disabilities, contact your legislators to let them know how crucial these funds can be. We hope that school systems will not find themselves forced to cut corners — or to neglect vulnerable populations — in the midst of this pandemic.

Ellen A. Callegary (ellen@callegarylaw.com) is a founding partner of a law firm focusing on special education, disability and family law issues. As an assistant Maryland attorney general, she advised state agencies on disability rights and was principal counsel for the Department of Juvenile Services. James Silver (james@callegarylaw.com) is also a partner in that law firm and has spent over a decade working with parents of students with disabilities.