Focusing on Students with Disabilities

iDEC Technical Assistance

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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. 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.  

In response to these serious concerns, researchers at the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning (KUCRL) have formed a collaborative relationship with the National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE) to provide a variety of educational services to state departments of education and other stakeholders involved in online learning and special education. These services will provide education stakeholders with critical information in the form of technical and research reports, stakeholder engagement activities, evaluation of specific program components, monitoring of special education services in virtual schools, policy development, and professional development for virtual school teachers and administrators. 

Description of Technical Assistance

Technical and Research Reports

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As the number of virtual schools continue to increase each year across the country, we see online learning practices move ahead of policy and research. Overall, the proportion of students with disabilities enrolled in virtual schools is at or just below the national average. However, a growingnumber of virtual schools report serving a much higher percentage of students with disabilities than in brick and mortar schools. As state departments of education respond to this rapid growth, it is critical that current trends, practices, and policies are identified and viewed along dimensions that inform policy decisions. The Inclusive Digital Era Collaborative (iDEC) works to support those efforts through research and data gathering activities. iDEC can provide technical reports on topics including related services and teletherapy, least restrictive environment in virtual schools, online accessibility and accommodations, and other relevant topics. iDEC builds technical and research reports that provide descriptions of the current landscape in online learning and special education and presents those findings in a way that helps SEAs and LEAs formulate next steps for ensuring the provision of FAPE in virtual school environments.  

Stakeholder Engagement 

Often the key to working towards equitable practices in all educational environments is having meaningful discussions that cross departmental and district lines. The influx of virtual schools has occurred at such a fast rate that stakeholders are having difficulty conducting in-depth discussions regarding issues of equity and special education policy and service delivery. iDEC can provide structure for guided discussions that will help move the conversation along in a number of settings that meet the needs of stakeholder groups. This can be done through the establishment of task forces, study groups, inter-agency coordination, stakeholder forums, and other innovative methods that support the building of capacity, knowledge, and skill base. 

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To promote a culture of continuous improvement in virtual schools and special education services, it is critical that data is systematically collected in order to describe the current practices and learn what works and what doesn’t work. IDEA requires that virtual schools must enroll all students regardless of disability. It is important that LEAs and SEAs develop a plan to increase organization capacity related to the educational services provided to students. Understanding the status of the virtual school special education programming is important to identify critical needs and make necessary adjustments. Examining program aspects such as the employment of highly qualified special education personnel, delivery of professional development for special educators, alignment of special education services with IEPs, use of specially designed instruction, qualifications of related services personnel, performance of students with an IEP, placement offerings in the least restrictive environment, and parent information and support give virtual school leaders and policy makers the necessary data to have meaningful discussions about policy and practice.  iDEC uses the most appropriate methods to address the identified evaluation objectives. As a result, findings, conclusions, and recommendations will be provided to stakeholders to support further discussion surrounding policy, practice, and programmatic structures. 


A survey of education personnel from 14 states found that monitoring virtual schools and special education delivery services posed particular challenges. Survey participants noted challenges related to the need for quality indicators that align with the virtual school environment and IDEA regulations. Other challenges include the need for monitoring methods and tools in order to determine if special education services are provided as agreed upon in the student’s IEP and how to monitor procedural safeguard compliance. iDEC is working with states to identify empirical keys that can be used to develop monitoring tools and procedures to yield accurate data. 

Policy Development Turquoise chair against a turquoise wall

Research findings that speak to online learning and students with disabilities is limited at best. Most research findings provide only descriptive data from convenience samples that policy makers cannot generalize. However, as enrollment numbers continue to climb in virtual schools, SEAs and LEAs must ensure that virtual school policies facilitate inclusive practices in online learning environments. For example, virtual schools that fail to ensure expedient IEP meetings (and full parent participation in those meetings); address the degree of social interaction in virtual schools; and provide assistive technology assessments leave a virtual school student at risk of not receiving a FAPE. These issues should be addressed through policy tools and mechanisms that protect student rights, but also encourage virtual schools to do the right thing. iDEC works with SEAs and LEAs to align IDEA policy goals with virtual school policy and practice. This is done through the use of inclusive policy frameworks, the identification of appropriate policy tools, and application of innovative policy approaches. 

Professional Development 

As increasing numbers of students with disabilities enter online learning, it becomes increasingly necessary to ensure that online teachers are prepared with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to provide legally mandated services and generally work effectively. Although the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is still leveraged to ensure the inclusion and success of students, working online presents unique challenges for teachers who may not see or interact with the students they are responsible for teaching. iDEC provides professional development to virtual school teachers that builds upon what we know about IDEA and best teaching practices and aligns that with the online learning environment. Professional development is provided in multiple formats to meet the unique needs of today’s virtual school teacher and administrator.