Federal education officials are reminding states and school districts that they have an obligation to provide special education services to kids with disabilities even if they live in institutional settings.

In a letter sent recently, the U.S. Department of Education said that states and schools must ensure that they identify children with disabilities and provide them the services they are legally entitled to under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

“(The Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services) is issuing this letter to clarify that children with disabilities residing in nursing homes and their parents have the same rights under IDEA that apply to all other IDEA-eligible children,” wrote Ruth Ryder, acting director of the Education Department’s special education office, and Michael Yudin, who recently left his role as an assistant secretary with the agency, in the seven-page correspondence.

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A 2014 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that nearly 5,000 school-age children lived in nursing homes nationwide. Such kids are among the most medically complex, with about 40 percent needing a feeding tube and a third relying on oxygen therapy to breathe. The report described many as nonverbal and minimally responsive.

States are responsible for locating children living in nursing facilities and ensuring that either the school district where the parent or the child resides is providing services, the Education Department guidance indicates.

Importantly, Yudin and Ryder said that schools cannot refuse to evaluate a child simply because they are unable to go to a school setting for such an assessment. And, just like any other student with a disability, those living in nursing homes should have an individualized education program designed to meet their needs.

“We understand that children residing in nursing homes may not be able to attend the school they would attend if not placed in the nursing home,” wrote the Education Department officials. “However, in these situations, the public agency still must ensure that children with disabilities residing in nursing homes are educated in the least restrictive environment appropriate to the child’s needs, based on his or her IEP.”

Personnel serving this “unique population of children with disabilities” should be “appropriately and adequately prepared and trained,” according to the guidance.

School districts that serve a greater number of children living in nursing homes may be able to receive extra state funding, the Education Department said.

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