Amid concerns about a decline in referrals, federal officials are pressing states to ensure that young kids with disabilities receive the early intervention services they’re entitled to.

The U.S. Department of Education released two guidance documents late last week clarifying expectations for states and early intervention service providers under what’s known as Part C of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act during the ongoing pandemic. The Part C program covers early intervention for children from birth to age 3.

The agency noted that referrals to Part C dropped as the coronavirus first emerged last year and have yet to rebound to pre-pandemic levels. As such, officials say that states need to do more to meet their obligations under IDEA’s “child find” provision, which requires states to identify, locate and evaluate all infants and toddlers with disabilities.

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“As the nation enters this new stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, (states) should consider enhancing and refocusing their child find efforts to make sure that they are sufficiently robust to ensure the appropriate referral, evaluation and identification of all infants and toddlers who may have a disability under IDEA Part C,” the guidance states.

The Education Department said that referral data should be utilized to identify which sources saw the biggest drops during the pandemic and states ought to refocus their public awareness efforts through a variety of means including billboards, television, newspapers and radio.

In addition, the guidance indicates that states must work to follow through on any early intervention referrals that got held up by circumstances related to the pandemic. And, for children whose early intervention services were disrupted by the pandemic, compensatory services may be warranted.

“The documents also serve to clarify that, regardless of the COVID-19 pandemic, or the mode of intervention or instruction, children with disabilities are entitled to (a free appropriate public education), and infants and toddlers with disabilities and their families to appropriate IDEA Part C services,” the guidance says.

The two Q&A documents are the last in a series of return-to-school special education guidance from the Education Department. Like the previous releases, the agency said that the new guidance comes in response to requests from stakeholders seeking clarification on how IDEA requirements apply during the pandemic.

“Access to early intervention services is critical for the development and well-being of young children and their families. This guidance is designed to assist states to identify and serve all eligible infants and toddlers with disabilities and their families so they can reach their full potential,” said Katherine Neas, acting assistant secretary of the Education Department’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services.

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