6 Dos and Don’ts of COVID Compensatory Services

September 10, 2021 BY Kelly C. Bawden, MS, CCC-SLP

The school year is well underway, and for many students and their families, that means a long-awaited return to the classroom. For students who receive special education services, this fall also brings conversations of compensatory (or recovery) services to mitigate losses incurred while COVID kept them out of school buildings. 

Discussions about compensatory services during The Before Times were not always easy, but they were usually relatively straightforward. The services set forth on the IEP happened or didn’t, and the variables in any given situation were primarily known. COVID and distance learning, however, muddied the waters significantly. It was (and continues to be) very much a “building-the-plane-while-we’re-flying-it” situation, and that makes it extremely challenging to figure out the who, what, where, when, and how of recovery services. 

However challenging it may be, students are entitled to FAPE, and teams have to find a way through. And while there is currently no exact legal precedent for this situation, there is somewhat of a consensus about a general framework for these COVID compensatory/recovery services discussions. Here are 6 dos and don’ts and some reference materials to help you get started on the right foot: 

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DON’T rely on what you think the law says about compensatory services.
DO take time to re-familiarize yourself with the specifics of what comp ed is designed to do, especially in the context of COVID. Many of us have ideas about how comp ed works that aren’t necessarily correct. Make sure your whole team is working from the same understanding before you get started and save yourselves many headaches in the future. This FAQ from the council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates does an excellent job of explaining the definitions, legal precedents, and potential issues that might arise.

DON’T cross your fingers and hope that families don’t ask about compensatory services. 
DO be proactive in reviewing PLEPs for all students. The State of Washington’s Roadmap for Special Education Recovery Services states that “Families should not have to make a special request for this process to occur.” Figure out a systematic approach that your team can follow to make sure that every IEP is reviewed (and make sure to document it, too!). 

DON’T assume that the learning recovery programs that are taking place in general education will take the place of compensatory services.
DO read this document, 9 Recommendations for Inclusive Learning Recovery for Students with Disabilities. The National Center for Learning Disabilities and nine other partner organizations worked together to compile the recommendations, and they did an excellent job discussing the issue.

DON’T think in terms of a quantitative, minute-for-minute replacement of lost services. 
DO think qualitatively about what kinds of services students need for recovery. Yes, you will need to put a number to it, but there is no reason to restrict yourselves to, say, 20 extra minutes per week of speech services for the rest of the year when perhaps a more intensive approach would better meet the student’s needs and remediate their skills more quickly. Disability Rights Oregon reminds us that “it may not make sense to make up for what was lost by providing the exact number of hours or type of service that were listed on the IEP. Instead, the goal of compensatory education is to help the student catch up to where he or she would have been if the services on the IEP had been provided to the student. That means that it may be reasonable to provide some other sort of service or support.” So think broadly and outside the box! 

DON’T rely solely on your traditional data sources to make your determination.
DO take into account multiple data sources and information specific to the COVID distance learning situation. The Colorado Department of Education has a great FAQ dedicated to this topic and suggests the following as a starting point:

  • Rate of progress on IEP goals prior to closure/disruption;
  • Difference between IEP progress monitoring data immediately preceding closure/disruption and IEP progress monitoring data collected a reasonable time after the return to in-person instruction;
  • Difference between services identified on the IEP and services offered during closure/ disruption, including amount, frequency, duration, type, and delivery model;
  • Accessibility of services offered to the student during closure/disruption;
  • Changes in the general education curriculum, as well as level and type of instruction for all students during closure/disruption; and
  • Input and information from parents concerning student performance during closure/disruption.

DON’T apply a one-size-fits-all approach when deciding about services.
DO make a student-by-student determination. This should be a no-brainer, but it bears repeating because of its importance. There will be students who regressed, those who plateaued, and those who flourished under distance learning. Some will need compensatory services, and some won’t. Remember: focus on what each student needs to make the goal progress that you would have expected if the pandemic had not occurred.

COVID has forced us to re-think and adapt to a previously unimaginable landscape in every area of our lives, compensatory education for students in special education included. While there are no clear-cut answers on exactly how to proceed, you’ll be off to a great start by using the resources provided here and remembering to put kids first when you do sit down at the IEP table.