How to Get Compensatory Education for Your Child

Many of the country’s roughly 7 million students with disabilities missed out on services and instruction when schools went remote due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and during the stops and starts of school reopenings.

For some children, services such as speech therapy or help from a paraprofessional translated poorly online, affecting the quality of their learning. For others, the support disappeared altogether.

ParentsTogether Action, a national organization for parents, surveyed 1,600 parents during the first few months of the pandemic, when most schools had gone remote. According to the survey, just 20% of parents whose children were entitled to special education services had received those services as of May 2020.

With the return to in-person learning, some parents of students with disabilities are trying to recoup that lost learning, by asking for what’s known as “compensatory education.” Those demands are bound to increase as the pandemic continues to ease, according to Ron Hager, the managing attorney for education and employment at the National Disability Rights Network, which provides legal advocacy services to people with disabilities.

“It’s going to be huge. Students have lost at least a year of education for the most part, in some cases more,” he says. “Compensatory education is a way for the school district to provide extra services … to enable the student to catch up and make up what they missed.”

But what exactly is compensatory education? And what do parents and guardians need to know before asking their child’s school for it?

[READ: Helping Students Catch Up on Unfinished Learning.]

Defining Compensatory Education

Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, students with disabilities are entitled to a “free appropriate public education” — which means that public schools are legally obligated to provide students who meet the criteria for obtaining services with the supports they need to learn.

A main tool for ensuring a school is meeting a student’s special education needs is through the child’s Individualized Education Program, or IEP, a personalized legal document that describes the services a child must receive.

The plan, which is developed by school staff in collaboration with the child’s parents, may include provisions for services such as speech therapy or occupational therapy, and includes learning goals for the student.

Parents may ask for compensatory services if the plan is not being followed. For example, if a student was supposed to receive speech and language services twice a week but only received them once a week, a parent could seek compensatory education to make up for the days the child missed.

For many years, compensatory education has been awarded to students in administrative hearings or through court decisions, after it is determined a school failed to provide necessary services or instruction, in violation of IDEA, Hager says.

During the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Education released guidance that says compensatory education is one way for students with disabilities to recover lost instruction and services when learning was disrupted.

Hager says some districts are reluctant to call make-up services “compensatory education” because they fear it implies wrongdoing.

“I don’t really care what they call it as long as they apply the principles of comp ed to what they’re doing,” he says. “If they want to call it standing on your head, I don’t care. I just want to make sure they’re providing the services the student’s entitled to.”

Students with 504 plans, which fall under civil rights law and are also intended to provide equal access to education for students with disabilities, may also seek compensatory education, Hager adds.

How to Determine if Your Child Is Entitled to Services

Selene Almazan, legal director of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, COPAA, asks a two-pronged question to determine if a child is eligible for compensatory education: Were the services specified in the child’s IEP not provided? And, as a result of those services not being provided, did the student fail to make their expected progress?

If the answer to both questions is yes, Almazan says a child may qualify for compensatory education.

Almazan says she encourages the families she works with to refer to periodic progress reports required for children with IEPs. Progress reports released right before schools closed in March 2020 can help provide a baseline understanding of where students were performing.

“It’s a good spot for measuring where students need to be,” she says. “That was your goal post … . (I)f you’re not where you were in February 2020, then you may be entitled to compensatory education.”

COPAA, which works to protect the civil rights of students with disabilities, also encourages families to collect anecdotal evidence of a student’s educational experience. That may include reviewing homework or identifying skills a child lost during the pandemic.

[READ: How to Find a Tutor for Your Child.]

Asking for Compensatory Education

Once a parent or guardian thinks their child is owed compensatory education because of the pandemic, they should schedule a meeting with the child’s IEP team to try to create a plan for recovery.

In the meeting, Hager says, parents should be prepared to document why they feel their child needs compensatory education. That includes answering questions including:

— How did the child miss services?

— What was not done that should have been done? Or how did the services or instruction provided fail to meet the child’s needs?

— Over what period of time did the child fail to receive services?

There’s no simple way to calculate how to catch students up, Hager says.

One approach is quantitative — if a student missed 20 hours of speech therapy, they could recoup 20 hours of speech therapy. For older students on the verge of aging out of eligibility for special education services, compensatory education could mean extending eligibility for another year.

Compensatory education should be delivered in addition to (and not in place of) regular instruction — so, for instance, after school, before school or during the summer.

Almazan notes that some school districts are choosing to provide recovery services, such as tutoring, to all students. But those extra resources should not be considered compensatory, unless they are individually tailored to a child’s specific needs.

“As a general rule, recovery services are just general for all students,” she says. “Compensatory education needs to be individualized.”

What to Do if Your School Is Not Responsive

Parents who find their child’s IEP team is reluctant to provide compensatory education have a couple of avenues for recourse.

One of them is filing a complaint with the education department in your state. Another is asking for due process, a formal process used to resolve disagreements over a child’s special education services.

If you choose to ask for due process, Hager recommends hiring an advocate or attorney to help. “It’s not a lawsuit and you’re not in court but it’s a very formal process.”

If a child has a 504 plan instead of an IEP, Hager says families can seek compensatory education by filing a complaint with the federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

One obstacle to providing services may be staffing. Phyllis Wolfram, the executive director of the Council of Administrators of Special Education, which advises school administrators, says schools across the country are encountering severe staffing constraints. Nationwide the shortages are especially acute among staff who work with students enrolled in special education.

But she says staff and parents should work together to try and improve learning for children with disabilities. She encourages educators and families to examine data together about where individual students are performing and where they should be.

Together they should come up with a plan. That can include modifying a child’s IEP to include more instruction time or services.

“Sometimes we as educators become defensive and we need to let go of that. We need to have honest and transparent conversations with our parents,” she says. “What I would hope is that everyone comes to the table with an open mind about how we can move forward.”

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How to Get Compensatory Education for Your Child originally appeared on usnews.com

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