On-line education is a modern reality, and impartial hearing officers may want to know how courts have handled cases in which parents contend that an online educational institution or program has failed in the obligation to afford free, appropriate public education to their child who has a disability. Price v. Commonwealth Charter Academy-Cyber School, No. 18-1778, 2019 WL 3816788, 74 IDELR 286 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 13, 2019), is such a case, though it may be more helpful at beginning the discussion of cyber programs than resolving it. Price involved a teen with anxiety disorder and ADHD, who was enrolled by his guardian in a charter school that provided its instruction online. Students could watch lectures live or as recordings. The guardian requested homebound services from the school, asking for a qualified special education teacher with a background in teaching students with anxiety disorders to come to the student’s home to provide instruction. The parent submitted a letter to the school from the student’s psychiatrist, which recommended that due to the student’s anxiety in his current school program that he be provided homebound instruction. The school requested more information and permission to discuss the student’s needs with the psychiatrist and obtain medical records. The guardian refused to permit the communication. The guardian filed for due process, and the hearing officer ruled in favor of the school, concluding, among other things, that the school offered the student appropriate education despite not providing him homebound instruction

In the appeal of the hearing officer decision, the court granted summary judgment in favor of the school. The court agreed with the hearing officer that the state’s regulations concerning homebound instruction do not apply to cyber schools, but rather to schools where students’ physical presence is expected. Even if the regulations applied, schools have discretion to deny homebound instruction requests. Here, the letter from the psychiatrist was not sufficient in establishing a need for homebound instruction, and the guardian blocked the school from obtaining more information. The court further noted that the school’s IEP for the student did offer some in-home related services to the student, which the guardian did not accept. Ultimately, the court said the school did not violate the student’s right to appropriate education under the IDEA by refusing to send a teacher into the home, reasoning that the guardian presented no evidence specifying that the student had that need. The court said it was the choice of the guardian and student to have the student stop participating in cyber classes while the homebound instruction request was pending.

The nature of the parent’s request – effectively homebound services or nothing – meant that there was no occasion for the court to dig into whether the cyber program offered by the charter school in fact met the student’s educational needs. Similarly, the court did not need to decide what obligations a school acting as its own local educational agency might have to depart from its usual online-only program and provide needed special education instruction from a live teacher in the student’s home. The insufficiency of the letter and guardian’s failure to cooperate placed that issue off the table as far as the court was concerned. Thus, the issue of FAPE in cyber instruction and the need for a charter to offer more than cyber instruction will need to be developed in cases to come.

Should such a case present itself, an impartial hearing officer would be well advised to address whether the state’s homebound instruction laws apply to cyber schools, or only to schools where the students’ physical presence is required. Also, the impartial hearing officer would need to determine whether the state’s laws governing cyber schools require the school to address all of the student’s needs, including those needs which require live instruction from a teacher in school or the student’s home or interaction with non-disabled peers.