Parents with children in the special education system often struggle to balance work with the many appointments and school meetings kids with disabilities can require. Things just got a bit easier, thanks to a new Labor Department opinion that IEP meetings qualify for leave coverage under the Family and Medical Leave (FMLA).
IEP meetings, or Individualized Education Plan meetings, are normally held once a year to determine the course of special education services a student will receive through the school system. Those services often include therapy prescribed by a doctor like speech, occupational or physical therapy. Since family doctor visits fall under FMLA, it’s logical that IEP meetings should as well. But employers haven’t always interpreted the law that way.
A parent’s presence at an IEP meeting has long been a hot topic in and out of the classroom because IEP meetings can be held without the parent present. If a parent is unable to get time off of work they may feel pressure to let the meeting continue without them, missing out on being a valuable part of their child’s educational plan.
The new opinion helps underscore for employers the importance of IEP meetings. Parents of children with special needs often feel like they are taking more time off work than co-workers. Doctors appointments, therapy visits and school meetings can multiply quickly for children with special needs. The Labor Department’s blessing means parents may feel a bit less guilt in leaving work for yet another family-related meeting.
The FMLA doesn’t cover everyone — but for those covered, the new opinion will bring relief.
Janel Mills, mother of a daughter with autism, is cheering the change. “I’ve always felt conflicted on whether I could take time from work for IEP meetings, or if I would be forced to use vacation time that I couldn’t spare,” Mills says. “It’s great that there’s a clear message to employers that IEPs are critical for parents to attend, and parents don’t have to worry about whether or not they can request the day off.”
Stephanie Giese, a Florida mom with a child who receives special education services, says this shift will improve her family’s involvement in IEP meetings. “We’ve been fortunate that I am able to stay home, but I think this decision is awesome because it will help with the division of labor and bringing more dads or at-work parents into the education process.”
“Often education decisions can fall solely on the at-home parent which builds stress and isolation in a marriage,” Giese continues. “There have been many times I went to IEP meetings alone because my husband didn’t have enough vacation time built up at work.”
For a family whose child is receiving special education services, IEP meetings can be just as important as visits to a doctor or specialist. The Labor Department’s support for parental attendance at these important meetings is a welcome show of support for families who certainly deserve it.