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Back to School: 10 Tips for a Successful School Year - Yes, Even with COVID
by Pat Howey, Advocate

Yes, I expect you are disappointed as you face another year with COVID-19. If you allow COVID to cause you to develop a defeatist mindset, this will not help your child have a successful school year.

Here are ten tips to help you get off to a good start for the new school year -- despite COVID-19.

3 children standing in front of school bus

Question: Help! School is starting. Despite COVID, I want to make sure I've done everything I can to make this a better school year for my child.

Answer: Are your kids excited about returning to school? Are they anxious? Most parents are feeling hopeful, but many are anxious too.

View your role as your child's "project manager." You will learn what this means and how to do this job in "The Parent as Project Manager" (Chapter 3 of Wrightslaw: From Emotions to Advocacy).

Here are ten tips to get your children off to a good start in the new school year.

1. What is your school's policy on in-person, virtual, or hybrid education?

COVID-19 has changed the school landscape again. You may have to decide whether to send your child to school or take advantage of your school's virtual or hybrid plan. Before you make this decision, you need to figure out the advantages and disadvantages of these plans.

Most schools post their policies on their website and in their newsletter. If the policy is not on the school website, contact your school district and ask for a copy.

Will your child transition from preschool to kindergarten, elementary to middle school, or middle school to high school? If so, can they visit the new school or classroom before school begins? If this is not possible, what is your school's plan for a smooth transition?

2. Review your child's IEP.

Does your child's current IEP include a plan if school closes? Does the IEP explain how the school will change the way children access school in a pandemic? Does it provide all the services your child needs, even if the school shifts to a virtual model?

Is the IEP clearly written so that if a different teacher is assigned to work with your child, the new teacher will know the special education and related services in the IEP (i.e., frequency, location, and duration), how these services should be provided, and by whom? If the answer to any questions about the specifics in the IEP is "no," request an IEP meeting to clarify these issues.

The goals in your child's IEP must be SMART (specific, measurable, action words, realistic, and time-specific). For more about writing measurable IEP goals, see Chapter 12: SMART IEPs in in Wrightslaw: From Emotions to Advocacy, 2nd Edition.

3. Meet with the teacher(s) to discuss your child's unique needs and effective strategies.

Because of COVID-19, this parent-teacher meeting may be virtual or by telephone. If the meeting is virtual, have a good photo of your child ready to show the teacher. Teachers are more likely to take a personal interest in and remember your child after they see a photo.

4. Make sure each teacher has a copy of your child's IEP.

Don't assume that your child's teachers have access to your child's IEP or that they have time to read all IEPs before school begins. Teachers have a mind-boggling number of things to do before the first day of school. It isn't realistic to expect each teacher to understand the details of each child's IEP before school begins.

If you cannot meet with the teachers in person, ask for their email addresses. Send a copy of your child's current IEP AND a photo of your child to each teacher.

5. Make a List of Five Important Things About Your Child.

Make a list of five important things that the teacher(s) needs to know about your child. Explain why these things are essential to your child's success. Include a brief description about how changes in the school routine, the classroom, or the teacher affected your child last year. Provide each teacher with a copy of this list.

6. Prepare to Deal with Potential Problems Early.

Is your child in general education classes? If so, the teachers may say they want to see how your child "gets along" before changing their approach or their class rules. Teachers often take this position because they want to give each child a fresh start. Thank the teacher for explaining the reasoning behind their position. In a few weeks, you will know if it's necessary to explain why your child's success depends on receiving the special education and related services, and accommodations in the IEP.

Children with disabilities often have problems when their routines and environments change. If your child is affected by changes, it is realistic to expect that this will happen again if COVID-19 causes disruptions at school.

Prepare your children to expect changes. Remind them early and often that their routine and environment may change. Make up possible scenarios. Ask what they will do in these scenarios. You want your child to learn resilience and how to keep their emotions under control. Your expectations will depend, in large part, on your child's age and maturity level.

7. Resolve Old Concerns and Issues.

If you have unresolved concerns or issues with the school, request an IEP meeting now, before the issues can mushroom out of control. If your child was affected by changes caused by the pandemic, the same problems may crop up again this year. Address your concerns at the IEP meeting. Your goal is to resolve problems before your child has similar problems this year.

8. Get New Assessments.

How much school did your child miss during the school closures? Since some schools closed for months and many closed for the academic year, you and the team need to determine the amount of regression and lost educational skills. The only way to answer questions about learning loss and regression accurately is with new assessments of your child's academic skills. Academic achievement tests measure your child's skills in reading, written language, and mathematics. (See Chapter 5 "Academic Achievement Assessments" in Wrightslaw: All About Tests and Assessments, 2nd Ed.).

If your child's academic achievement levels were tested last year, you can compare those scores with scores obtained on the same test(s) this year to determine your child's progress or lack of progress during the school closures.

If this year's academic achievement scores, as measured by standard scores and percentile ranks, are lower than last year's scores, this is evidence that your child regressed, lost previously learned skills, did not learn new skills, and/or did not make progress during the last academic year.

While group achievement tests are not a substitute for an individualized evaluation, these specific scores will give you a good sense of your child's progress or lack of progress during the school closures. (See Chapter 3, Your Child's Evaluations, in Wrightslaw: From Emotions to Advocacy).

9. Go to your school's Open House.

Attending the school's Open House has several benefits. You will have another chance to meet with your child's teachers (and make a good impression). Teachers often explain their classroom rules during Open House. When you know the classroom rules, you will know if your child is likely to have trouble understanding the rules. If you know the rules, you will have opportunities to explain the classroom rules to your child.

10. Use email for important communications.

Use email to send important messages to the teachers. Your email history will create a "contact log" of parent-school communications. Never let your child be the "messenger" between you and the school about problems.

Make sure your emails have lots of carrier returns, are easy to read and understand, and do not contain typos, which are visually and mentally distracting to the recipient. Your word processing program includes grammar check and spell check tools. Make good use of these tools.

Do not overwhelm teachers with daily emails unless you and the teacher have agreed to communicate daily. Save email for important issues that must be addressed quickly. Address less important concerns and updates in one email at the end of a week or longer.

Remember: During the pandemic, teachers got hundreds, if not thousands, of emails a week from parents, students, other teachers, and administrators. If you send daily emails, you may be viewed as the mom who cried "wolf." Teachers won't want to read your emails and may miss that one important email you sent.

Have a Great School Year!

Meet Pat Howey

Pat HoweyPat Howey has a B.A. in Paralegal Studies from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College and is a member of Lamba Epsilon Chi. She is an Indiana Registered Paralegal, an affiliate member of the Indiana and the American Bar Associations, and a national known parent advocate with over 35 years of experience helping families.

The author of Special Education: Plan and Simple, Special Education, The Commentary series. Pat has numerous articles published on the Wrightslaw website, Ask the Advocate. Pat has been a member of the Wrightslaw Speakers Bureau since 2005 and has presented on special education and advocacy from coast to coast.

Pat is a charter member and past Director of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA) and a faculty member of the Institute of Special Education Advocacy at the College of William and Mary Law School in Williamsburg, Virginia from 2010 through its closing in 2021. She currently works as a paralegal in the Education Division of Connell, Michael, Kerr Law Firm in Carmel, Indiana.

Pat presents From Emotions to Advocacy programs. In these programs, parents learn how to assess their children's strengths and weaknesses, build healthy working relationships with school personnel, about the "gentle art of disagreeing," and how to participate as equal members of the IEP team.

More Tips from Pat

10 Tips about Placement

10 Tips for a Successful School Year

10 Tips for Schools on Avoiding Confrontation with Parents

10 Tips for Parents: How to Listen to Your Inner Voice

10 Tips for Good Advocates

10 Tips for Ending the School Year

10 Tips on Hiring an Advocate

14 Tips for Reviewing Your Child's Educational Record

18 Tips on Filing Complaints

Contact Information

Patricia L. Howey, B.A., IRP
POB 117
West Point, Indiana 47992-0117

Page revised on 1/17/2023

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