Q: Our success rate for virtual learners continues to decline. Can a student’s inability to access virtual learning, unrelated to technological barriers, trigger the District’s child find duty?
A: Yes. Educators play a key role in the child find process, as they are often the first to notice signs that a student is struggling with a disability. This is true for in-person and virtual learners. A student’s inability to access virtual learning, excessive absenteeism, and declining performance could trigger the District’s child find duty.
COVID-19 may have upended normalcy for students, parents, and educators, but it did not alter the District’s child find responsibilities. Districts have an affirmative duty to identify all IDEA-eligible students who reside in their jurisdiction and that duty cannot be delegated to parents. Therefore, while districts should make safety a priority during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is vital that they also stay vigilant in identifying, locating, and evaluating students suspected of having a disability and needing special education and related services. Not only should districts take note of requests for accommodations that highlight a disability or medical condition, but they should also look for things like chronic absenteeism, declining performance, or continued poor performance. These circumstances and behaviors can also trigger the District’s child find duty. Generally, when a parent asks a teacher, school counselor, or school administrator for an evaluation, this starts the child find process under the IDEA. However, districts have an affirmative duty to locate and identify students with disabilities who may be in need of special education and related services and should not wait to receive a request for evaluation before making a referral. Some examples of circumstances or behaviors that may trigger the need for an evaluation: (1) academic struggles due to depression or anxiety may create suspicion that a child has an emotional disturbance; or (2) poor grades due to inability to focus long enough to complete homework may qualify a student under the other health impairment category (e.g., ADHD).
A student’s regular absence from remote learning does not mean he or she should automatically be referred for a special education evaluation. Educators should look for additional signs, including when a student fails to log in or complete assignments, when a student starts to fall behind or slows in his or her progress, or when a parent expresses concern or requests accommodations to make materials accessible. Districts should have in place consistent data collection and service log procedures for use which could help educators determine whether a particular child is experiencing significantly more issues than his or her peers. Parent involvement is also essential to increasing attendance and districts are encouraged to reach out to parents on a regular basis. A student’s absence may be due to a family issue or social maladjustment, which does not qualify for special education services. However, when in doubt the District should consider whether an evaluation is needed to determine that there are no undiagnosed mental health issues or learning disabilities.
The National Center on Educational Outcomes has provided additional considerations in addressing the absences of students with disabilities that are related to health issues, available at https://www.cleweb.org/sites/cleweb.org/files/assets/Impact%20on%20Attendance.pdf. Please contact your local school attorney if you seek additional information or have specific questions regarding child find issues during the COVID-19 pandemic.