Building Engagement with Distance Learning

DL #28: Not letting LRE Slide: Ensuring inclusive education during COVID

 Districts are implementing a variety of instructional delivery models depending on the COVID rate in their area. The models vary between students being fully in-person, fully online, or in a hybrid. Throughout this period, the requirement and benefit for all students with disabilities, including students with significant cognitive disabilities, being educated in the least restrictive environment (LRE) has not changed and is supported both in IDEA and the research (Agran et al., 2019; Gee et al., 2020). 

Typically, district leadership makes the decision regarding the instructional delivery model for the schools in their district. Based on the district decision, instructional teams determine what education looks like for individual students. While states and districts may provide guidance on the need to maintain the LRE during the pandemic, often it is the instructional team’s decisions about how services will be provided that impacts LRE. Team decisions can sustain or increase inclusive education. They can also perpetuate, or even unintentionally, increase more restrictive programming. 

Teams do not always consider how their decisions about service delivery impact LRE. This is particularly true during distance and hybrid learning when stepping back and considering a student’s whole program may not be happening. It is also important to keep in mind that every student’s educational program is the sum of their access and progress in the general education curriculum along with progress on their individual IEP goals. The two are linked. Both must be prioritized. 

Considering three key questions is useful for guiding teams as they develop inclusive instructional plans that lead to positive outcomes for students with significant cognitive disabilities:

  • How can the student be a member in the general education classroom throughout the day? 
  • How can the student actively participate in general education throughout the day? 
  • How will the student be learning the general education curriculum? 

Regardless of the instructional delivery model determined by a district, there is a point where the instructional team decides what instruction will look like for a student with significant cognitive disabilities. At this point, it is important for teams to be creative and make decisions that move the answers to these questions closer to being more inclusive, rather than towards more restrictive programs. 

Consider These Two Scenarios in the Same District

A school district decides to only bring back their students with significant needs for in-person instruction. They provide in-person instruction (four half days per week) and asynchronous online instruction at home during the rest of the week. The remainder of the students in the school continue learning through a mix of synchronous and asynchronous online instruction. Here are two scenarios for instructing students with significant cognitive disabilities. 

Scenario A

The instructional team considers the three questions and develops solutions to create an inclusive instructional environment. 

  • The students with significant cognitive disabilities receive in-person instruction at school. There are no other students in the building, so they join their general education peers in synchronous, online instruction during this time. 
  • The special education teacher, paraprofessionals, and related service personnel support the students to participate in the virtual general education classes. They embed IEP goals into the instruction at appropriate times in the general education instruction. 
  • The special education teacher collaborates online with the general education teachers to plan instruction. They might use the 5-15-45 tool to collaborate.​
  • As needed, the team provides additional pre-teaching and re-teaching of the general education content as well as specific skill-building. Sometimes these needs are addressed in small group instruction with peers and sometimes they are provided individually, depending on the content. These additional supports are available for all students and identified during the general education-special education collaborative planning time.
  • During asynchronous instruction, students focus on the adapted general education assignments and an individually-paced online skill-building program. Online paraprofessional support is provided in collaboration with the parents, as needed. 

Scenario B

The instructional teams create a separate in-person instructional environment for students with significant cognitive disabilities. There is no inclusion.  

  • The students with significant cognitive disabilities receive in-person instruction at school. They are in a self-contained classroom.
  • There is no collaboration between general education and special education teachers happening because the students with significant disabilities do not participate in general education.
  • The in-person instruction focuses solely on the IEP goals and foregoes instruction accessing the general education curriculum.
  • During asynchronous instruction, the students focus on the adapted assignments from the special education teacher and an individually-paced online skill-building program. Online paraprofessional support is provided in collaboration with the parents, as needed.

These two scenarios are based on the same district decision given their COVID situation. Consideration of the three questions raises a team’s awareness about the impact of their instructional decisions. It also raises awareness of the importance of being creative and collaborative in problem-solving meaningful opportunities for education in the least restrictive environment. Scenario B also demonstrates the cascade effect of placement in a self-contained classroom, lack of collaboration between general and special educators and, thereby, the lack of focus on the general education curriculum. The table below is a summary of the different program outcomes for students and LRE when teams consider these three key questions versus when they are not considered. 


Scenario A

Scenario B

Is the student a member in the general education classroom throughout the day?

Yes. By being present and included in synchronous, online instruction and submitting work during asynchronous instruction

No. All instruction is provided in a self-contained classroom.

Is the student actively participating in general education throughout the day?

Yes. Through adapted whole group and small group learning activities. 

No. Receives all instruction in a self-contained classroom.

Is the student learning the general education curriculum

Yes. There is ongoing, online collaboration between the general and special education teachers to provide grade-level, standards-based instruction. IEP goals are integrated with the general education instruction.  

No. There is no collaboration between general and special education happening. Instruction focuses almost solely on the IEP goals.

For additional information

  • The role of paraprofessionals when pivoting between hybrid and in-person instruction, check out DL #23.
  • Instructional planning for pivoting between in-person and hybrid instruction, check out DL #17, the 5C Process.


  • Agran, M., Jackson, L., Kurth, J. A., Ryndak, D., Burnette, K., Jameson, M., … Wehmeyer, M. (2019). Why aren’t students with severe disabilities being placed in general education classrooms?  Examining the relations among classroom placement, learner outcomes, and other factors. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 45(1), 4–13.

  • Gee, K., Gonzalez, M., & Coooper, C. (2020). Outcomes of inclusive versus separate placements: A matched pairs comparison study. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 45, 223–240.

Distance Learning Series: DL #28, February 2021

  • Ghere, G., & Vandercook, T. (2021). Not letting LRE Slide:  Ensuring inclusive education during COVID (DL #28). TIES Center.

TIES Center is supported through a cooperative agreement between the University of Minnesota and the Research to Practice Division, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education (# H326Y170004). The Center is affiliated with the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) which is affiliated with the Institute on Community Integration (ICI) at the College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota. The contents of this report were developed under the Cooperative Agreement from the U.S. Department of Education, but do not necessarily represent the policy or opinions of the U.S. Department of Education or Offices within it. Readers should not assume endorsement by the federal government. Project Officer: Susan Weigert

The National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) leads the TIES Center partnership. Collaborating partners are the Arizona Department of Education, CAST, University of Cincinnati, University of Kentucky, University of North-Carolina–Charlotte, and the University of North Carolina–Greensboro.

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