The extended closure of schools has caused confusion within the special education community. Not only are educators worried about the ability to provide appropriate services to meet the needs of each student, but they also fear falling out of compliance with the child’s individualized education program (IEP). For many, spring also marks a busy time in the academic calendar, as it is when many annual review meetings are completed.
Without access to the school building, the process of holding IEP meetings has become a concern for educators and parents alike. The U.S. Department of Education released a statement encouraging the use of technology to provide services to students, including using digital platforms to hold meetings. As a result, many districts have turned to using Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, or other conferencing platforms—with the consent of families—to maintain the IEP timeline.
Conducting Virtual IEP Meetings
1. Use the school’s platform: Since many school districts are using cloud-based app platforms like G Suite for Education or Microsoft Education, that video conference platform should be the first choice. Not only do staff members already have access, but these platforms generally offer more in terms of privacy than free video conferencing tools do. Invitations can be sent to parents so they can access the meeting through their camera-embedded device or phone. Some parties may wish to phone in instead if that’s possible or to disable the camera function during the meeting and proceed with audio only, to maintain additional privacy.
2. Consider web conference alternatives: Not every family will have access to video conferences. Google Hangouts offers the opportunity to create conference calls using both phone numbers and email addresses. School staff can be invited through their work emails and parents can be called through their preferred number.
3. Synchronize district calendars: Arranging meeting times may be more complicated during this extended school closure. Google Calendar offers the ability to see when staff members are available. Case managers can search for each district team member and see the dates and times when they are already booked for meetings or appointments. This makes it easier to call families and provide options for scheduling IEP meetings. But note: The search feature only works with organization-based accounts, not personal email accounts.
Google Voice is another great tool for calling parents as it provides the educator with a unique number that they can use for communication purposes—they can keep their personal number private. Google Voice is free for national calls and text messages.
4. Have an agenda prepared: Video or phone conferences can be more difficult to navigate than in-person conferences because of the difficulty of knowing when to address specific sections of the IEP. Having a digital agenda can help to make the transition to web conferences run smoothly—a concise list of items can be helpful to all members of the team to know what will be discussed next.
This agenda should be prepared and shared in advance of the meeting to ensure proper input from all team members. Include time to talk about additional supports during remote learning and extended closure for the remainder of the year.
5. Enable the confidentiality feature in emails: The increase in email communication between members of the IEP team brings up the issue of email confidentiality. Gmail and Outlook both have confidentiality modes that can be enabled on outgoing messages. In Gmail, the feature offers protection against unauthorized sharing or forwarding and has the option to set an expiration date for the message. Outlook has similar options, such as disabling forwarding permissions, and also alerts the user that the incoming message contains confidential information.
6. Encourage student participation: The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) says that students should be attending their meetings “whenever appropriate.” This practice can continue with virtual meetings by sending invitations to the student’s district-provided email. Students can actively participate or simply listen to the discussion. If students are given the ability to share their screen, they can display work they have completed throughout the year, which may lead the team to discover areas of strength or skills where a student feels they need more support.
7. Muting and unmuting: Echoes and feedback are common in large video conferences, which is why the ability to mute or unmute oneself is helpful. This feature is also an easy indicator that someone wants to chime in to the conversation during a moment of collaboration—if members switch themselves from muted to unmuted, it’s a signal that they’re seeking to add input into the conversation. Putting themselves back on mute signals that they’re finished adding their perspective.
8. Don’t forget parental input outside of IEP meetings: As educators and administrators are trying to assemble appropriate work for students with disabilities, it is crucial to remember to include families in this process. While families are always considered during IEP meetings, they should be encouraged to be part of the instructional planning, too. It is important to offer chances for family collaboration with district staff to learn more about student needs at home and how to provide appropriate, individualized support for the child.