California Department of Education’s “Stronger Together: A Guidebook for the Safe Reopening of California’s Public Schools” Impact on Special Education


On June 8, 2020, the California Department of Education (“CDE”) released “Stronger Together: A Guidebook for the Safe Reopening of California’s Public Schools” (“Guidebook”), which can be viewed at

The Guidebook recommends many measures for safely reopening schools, including coordination among local educational agencies (“LEA”), local health departments, and local stakeholders when planning for reopening.  Our firm will soon provide another Alert that addresses many of these issues.  This Alert focuses on the Guidebook’s discussion of issues specific to students with disabilities (“SWD”), as well as mental health considerations for all students.

Special Education Programming Considerations

Health and Safety

Face Coverings:  The Guidebook recommends that all staff and students wear cloth face coverings/masks while at school or on the bus.  However, the Guidebook does not recommend use of a facemask by anyone who has trouble breathing, or is “otherwise unable to remove the covering without assistance.” 

The Guidebook also suggests that schools plan for and consider how to maintain safety for SWDs that might refuse or be unable to wear a mask and/or need other assistance with toileting, mobility assistance, etc.  Alternatives to face masks can include use of a cloth drape attached to the student’s shirt, or a clear face shield to allow for view of the wearer’s mouth.  Schools should consider increasing staff support in classrooms with students who need extra support, creating smaller cohorts of students to minimize the mixing of student groups throughout the day, and minimizing the movement of students and staff as much as possible.

Physical Distancing:  The Guidebook generally recommends social distancing during all school activities.  However, the Guidebook recommends schools establish flexibility and plan for how to implement physical distancing for students with extensive support needs, and in line with the school’s current facility limitations. 

The Guidebook encourages LEAs to plan for supporting SWDs’ access to the least restrictive environment (“LRE”). 

Provision of Free Appropriate Public Education (“FAPE”)

The Guidebook recommends schools use the education model chosen for all students as the basis for establishing FAPE.  The Guidebook recommends that schools work with each student and family individually to determine what FAPE looks like for that student, given difficulties created by the pandemic.  Schools should ensure SWDs are included in and offered all models of education provided to general education students, using the IEP process to customize the opportunity and provide any necessary supports. 

The Guidebook suggests a potential need for amending students’ IEPs to update the changes to education delivery and account for the local delivery of services upon reopening.  The Guidebook recommends that schools use the annual IEP to plan for both a “traditional school year,” and one that includes future closures.  The Guidebook “suggest[s] LEAs include distance learning plans or addendums to address distance learning needs during immediate or future school site closures.”

Mental Health Services

The Guidebook emphasizes the need for supporting students’ social-emotional functioning because of the pandemic’s negative effects.  LEAs should make students’ mental health and wellness a planning priority.  The Guidebook includes a checklist for increasing the accessibility of mental health resources and supports for all students and staff members upon reopening.  The Guidebook suggests a tiered approach:

  • Tier 1 — Universal Supports
    • Whole School Safety and Prevention Planning — What is the LEA doing to promote wellness of students on a daily basis?
    • Community and Family Engagement — How is the LEA communicating with local agencies and partners to support the school community’s mental wellness?
    • Staff Wellness — What supports does the LEA offer to promote staff wellness and prevent burnout, compassion fatigue, and secondary traumatic stress?
    • Classroom Strategies — How does the LEA promote safety and consistency in the classroom?
  • Tier 2/3: Early and Targeted Intervention
    • What supports are currently in place to assist students and staff with mental health issues? Schools should consider implementing or scaling up social-emotional learning, and maintain or expand student mental health services using earmarked funds or other leveraged resources.
    • What technology is being used to deliver mental health services remotely? Schools should publicize the availability of tele-health services, and should ensure any e-delivery of services is legally compliant, secure, and confidential.  CDE encourages schools to promote use of counseling services and provide messaging that removes stigma. 

This AALRR publication is intended for informational purposes only and should not be relied upon in reaching a conclusion in a particular area of law. Applicability of the legal principles discussed may differ substantially in individual situations. Receipt of this or any other AALRR publication does not create an attorney-client relationship. The Firm is not responsible for inadvertent errors that may occur in the publishing process. 

©2020 Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo



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