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By Cathy Buyrn, M.Ed.

When Virginia schools shut down in the spring of 2020 school leaders charged with supervising service delivery for students with disabilities and other marginalized populations were confronted with unprecedented challenges. Questions about the federally mandated provision of a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) for students with disabilities during pandemic related school closures surfaced immediately. Initially, the guidance provided to school leaders indicated that if schools were closed to all students, there was no denial of FAPE (USDE, 2020). Additionally, a pause on new learning during the initial closure resulted in an assumption that optional review activities did not compromise students’ access to FAPE.


As the impact of the pandemic on students with disabilities unfolded, it became clear that service delivery for students with disabilities had to be prioritized ahead of broader solutions for all students (NCLD, 2021). The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) has issued guidance to help school leaders plan for service delivery designed to address learning losses for students with disabilities during the COVID-19 crisis. Decision makers should consult Considerations for COVID Recovery Services for Students with Disabilities (2020) as they plan for the summer of 2021 and the upcoming 2021-2022 school year.


While some school divisions provided extended school year (ESY) services during the summer of 2020, many school divisions did not bring any students (including students with disabilities) back to in-person learning until well into the fall of 2020 or the spring of 2021. Individualized educational programs (IEPs) written for the 2020-2021 school year included service statements that defined what services would look like if schools were operating remotely or in-person. Students with disabilities were among the first students expected to be offered in-person learning (VDOE, 2020). Given the ongoing impact of COVID-19 on schools and services for students with disabilities, it may be necessary to revisit ESY and other 2021-2022 service delivery plans. What was written into IEPs in the spring of 2020 may not meet the unique needs of students with disabilities in the coming year.


This year there are three considerations for students with disabilities who may not have made appropriate gains in academic and/or functional skills. The three service delivery options are compensatory, COVID recovery, and extended school year (ESY). Any combination of these services should be designed by the IEP team in collaboration with students, families, and staff (VDOE, 2020).

  • Compensatory Services (VDOE, 2020, p. 14)
  • “If services needed to ensure FAPE were so complex and, as such, could not be reasonably provided through a virtual learning platform or other alternative means that were available to other students, then the child’s IEP Team must determine the extent, if any, what traditional compensatory services will be provided once normal school operations resume”
  •  If families declined participation in services offered, FAPE has not been denied.
  • Compensatory services are not necessarily a minute for minute, hour for hour, or day for day replication. They are intended to satisfactorily compensate for the missed service (VDOE, 2007; VDOE, 2020).
  • COVID Recovery Services (VDOE, 2020, pp. 14-15)
  • Services designed to mitigate a lack of progress or regression in skills that may have resulted from the impacts of COVID-19 on students with disabilities.
  • Should be based on comparisons of pre-COVID and post-COVID student data.
  • Should be designed in collaboration with families and documented explicitly in the IEP based on the unique needs of individual students.
  • ESY and/or other general summer school opportunities are not a replacement for COVID Recovery services.
  • Extended School Year Services
  • Services designed for students whose “gains during the regular school year will be significantly jeopardized if ESY services are not provided” (VDOE, 2020, p. 15).
  • A variety of student specific considerations should be used as a basis for offering or denying ESY.
  • Regression/Recoupment
  • Degree of Progress
  • Emerging Skills/Breakthrough Opportunities
  • Interfering Behaviors
  • Nature and Severity of the Disability
  • Special Circumstances or Other Factors
  • Participation in summer programs that do not specifically target the IEP goals of individual students does not satisfy ESY obligations.

(VDOE, 2007, p. 4)

Some students with disabilities may require a combination of all three services (compensatory, recovery, ESY) in order to close widened skills gaps or maintain progress. Some students may not require any of these services. The key to determining who will get what supports should be driven by the observations of families and the educators who work with individual students (VDOE, 2020). Families do not have to wait for a student to regress to expect that a proactive and equity driven service delivery plan be put in place (VDOE, 2007, p. 9). The regression standard under IDEA for ESY provision is “only when such regression will substantially thwart the goal of meaningful progress” (VDOE, 2007, p. 9). What meaningful progress looks like for individual students should be based on their unique needs in order to achieve the goal of independent living and successful participation in society.


Decision makers should not make decisions about compensatory, recovery, or ESY services based on specific disability categories or across the board skill level benchmarks (VDOE, 2007; VDOE, 2020). Each student’s determination must be based on their individual circumstances in both academic and functional performance areas (NCLD, 2021). While all academic areas are important, reading is considered a critical life skill under the Americans with Disabilities Amendment Act (2008) and should be treated with as much strategic intention as activities of daily living. Courageous school leaders should consider using COVID funds and other resources to design creative service delivery options that will address historically low expectations for students with disabilities (NCLD, 2021).


The National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) has released timely, and valuable guidance focused on strategies to accelerate the rate of skill acquisition for students with disabilities. This guidance invites school leaders charged with making decisions about service delivery for students with disabilities and other marginalized populations to “reimagine learning” (NCLD, 2021, p. 4) in order to create more inclusive and equitable opportunities that are strategically designed to close critical skill gaps. One of the most proven strategies for accelerating rates of skill acquisition and closing critical skill gaps for historically marginalized groups of students is high dosage tutoring (Robinson, et al., 2021). Decision-makers can use the design principles offered by EdResearch for Recovery to design a system of compensatory, recovery, and ESY services to provide the inclusive and equitable supports that students deserve following the impacts of COVID-19.

Additional Resources


Back to School Considerations: Options for Ensuring FAPE (PEATC.Org)


Navigating EdEquityVA: Virginia’s Road Map to Equity

Special Education Considerations After COVID-19


Americans With Disabilities Act Amendments, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. (2008).


National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD). (2021). Promising practices for accelerating learning for students with disabilities during COVID-19 and beyond.

Robinson, C. D., Kraft, M. A., Loeb, S., & Schueler, B. E. (2021). Accelerating student learning with high-dosage tutoring: EdResearch for recovery design principles series.

Virginia Department of Education (VDOE). (2007). Extended school year services: Technical assistance resource document.

Virginia Department of Education (VDOE). (2020). Considerations for COVID recovery services for students with disabilities.

United States Department of Education (USDE). (2020). Questions and answers on providing services to children with disabilities during the Coronavirus disease 2019 outbreak.

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