Little boy holding up iPad

The Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA, 2004) identified state and local responsibilities for educating and providing related services to students with disabilities. IDEA requires states and local education entities to provide equal access to educational opportunity to all students with disabilities. IDEA also guarantees students with disabilities and their families a free appropriate public education (FAPE), regardless of the setting in which they receive their education and supporting services. The path to providing this access is outlined in Individualized Educational Programs (IEPs). While IDEA has enumerated obligations, it does not provide detailed guidance on how to meet these. Further, IDEA does not distinguish between educational settings based on whether students are receiving instruction in a traditional manner or by means of Internet and/or online communications, yet the obligation to provide education and services still applies to these new types of learning.

Online education is being adopted at an ever-increasing rate and its newly emerging prevalence has far-reaching implications for students, their parents and the field of education. School choice legislation often establishes the creation of virtual schools and through statute authorizes governing entities over these schools.

To date, no federal education laws specifically reference special education in online educational settings; however, the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) issued guidance to state departments of education on August 5, 2016. In this Dear Colleague letter, the authors identified state and local education agencies’ responsibilities related to implementing the IDEA in full-time virtual schools. Although the Dear Colleague letter does not give explicit directives on how virtual schools should ensure FAPE in online learning environments, the letter does remind these entities in clear terms that all forms of public education must be made accessible to every student.

However, virtual schools are often left to build their own special education policies and procedures without the benefit of years of experience and practice like their brick and mortar counterparts. To date, interested stakeholders have no research-based model that virtual schools can use in order to ensure students with disabilities are provided a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Even more concerning, practitioners are not clear on the levels of restrictiveness that exist in the online learning environment.