New guidance warns that children suspected of having disabilities are waiting too long for evaluations and special education services are not being fully implemented for some young kids in accordance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

In a joint letter, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs and the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Head Start are calling out state and local special education directors and Head Start programs for problems that they say have escalated since the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The departments acknowledge that the pandemic continues to present challenges to implementing appropriate programs and services for young children. Further, opportunities for some young children with disabilities to participate in inclusive early childhood settings have been more limited. However, OSEP and OHS want to emphasize that, notwithstanding these challenges, children with disabilities retain their rights under IDEA to receive appropriate special education and related services in accordance with their individualized education programs (IEP),” reads the letter sent last month from Valerie C. Williams, director of the Education Department’s Office of Special Education Programs, and Katie Hamm, acting director of the Office of Head Start at HHS.

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The agencies indicate that their data show initial evaluations for special education are being held up, placement decisions aren’t meeting IDEA’s requirement that services be provided in the least restrictive environment and special education services included in children’s IEPs “are not being provided timely, or IEPs are not being fully implemented.”

The letter notes that state agencies, school districts and Head Start programs all bear responsibility for implementing IDEA, no part of which has been waived. States must ensure that a free appropriate public education is available to all eligible kids with disabilities while schools are responsible for identifying, locating and evaluating children who may have disabilities and serving those deemed eligible under IDEA in a timely fashion. Meanwhile, Head Start programs should refer children, as appropriate, for evaluations and support the implementation of IEPs.

Federal officials are encouraging states, school districts and Head Start programs to be more intentional about working together to fulfill their obligations under IDEA. A companion document issued alongside the “Dear Colleague” letter details how they can establish memorandums of understanding to do so.

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