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Developing Contingency Plans for Individualized Education Programs (IEPs)

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Developing Contingency Plans for Individualized Education Programs (IEPs)

Sharon Madsen, Education Consultant, Special Education Team, Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction

Daniel Parker, Assistant Director, Special Education Team, Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction



The COVID-19 pandemic brought about many changes, including how IEP teams need to ensure students with IEPs, regardless of the student’s learning environment, are provided a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). With some schools offering virtual and hybrid learning options during the 2021-22 school year, some IEPs included contingency plans to ensure FAPE when in-person instruction was not available.


The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) requires school districts to continue providing FAPE to students with disabilities even when in-person learning on an extended basis is not possible such as school closure.  In addition to situations like a national pandemic, contingency plans may be able to be used if the student still receives FAPE, when in-person instruction is not possible to ensure there is no break in special education services.


What is a contingency plan?

A contingency plan is a temporary plan that accounts for a change in placement when moving from in-person to a virtual or hybrid learning environment. A contingency plan outlines a condition (e.g., moving to a virtual learning environment) and how the IEP will provide FAPE during that condition.  Contingency plans may also be called “remote learning plans”, “distance learning plans” or be given other names by an individual school or district. Whatever the name, any changes to IEP services due to an event such as a school closure for in-person instruction, must be clearly documented in the student’s IEP.  Further information on moving from in-person to a virtual learning environment can be found in Wisconsin DPI’s A Guide to Implementing IEPs and Monitoring Progress of IEP Goals When Moving Between In-Person, Hybrid, or Virtual Learning Environments.


What does a contingency plan address?

Contingency plans can account for changes to any of the following:

  • New or different disability-related needs,

  • IEP goals,

  • Frequency, amount, location, and duration of IEP services:

    • Supplementary aids and services 

    • Specially designed instruction

    • Related services

    • Program modifications or supports for school staff

  • How progress on IEP goals and progress in general education curriculum will be monitored.


What are the requirements for creating and implementing contingency plans?

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) does not address contingency plans. However, IEP teams should continue to follow IDEA requirements for developing and implementing IEPs.  The following was adapted by Pfrommer, Joseph L. 4 Characteristics of a Contingency Plan for a Student with a Disability.  Special Ed Connection (2020): 1-2.  A well-developed contingency plan should be:


  • Individualized: IDEA requires an IEP to be based on a student’s unique needs (34 CFR 300.321). A contingency plan must also be based on the individual needs of a student and should not be a “one size fits all” plan for all students with disabilities or the same plan for students with the same disability identification.

  • Emergency-Based: Contingency plans are for the purpose of providing FAPE when in-person instruction outlined in a student’s IEP is not possible due to an emergency.  Contingency plans cannot be developed to address behavioral needs of students, as a disciplinary consequence, or utilized for other reasons not related to an emergency or health condition that does not allow for in-person instruction.

  • Clear: Contingency plans must clearly outline the circumstances of when the contingency plan will go into effect, for how long the contingency plan will go into effect, the frequency, duration, amount, and location of all IEP services during the term of the contingency plan, and under what circumstances the contingency plan will no longer be required.  The contingency plan should also be clear as to any services that will not be provided when the contingency plan is in effect.

  • Well-planned: IEP teams should follow the College and Career Ready (CCR) IEP process when developing a contingency plan. Since contingency plans are part of a student’s IEP, parents should participate in the development of the contingency plans.  Contingency plans should also clearly state “how” and “when” parents will be notified that the contingency plan has begun as well as “how” and “when” the contingency plan has ended. In addition to parents, it should also be clear to all staff providing general and special education services to the child of their specific responsibilities of who will be implementing which aspects of the contingency plan (such as supplementary aids and services, assistive technology, or other accommodations, related services via teleservice, or specially designed instruction through virtual learning).

  • Temporary: A contingency plan is not intended to permanently replace a student’s IEP and is “contingent” on a specific event such as a school closure for in-person instruction. A contingency plan lasts only as long as necessary to ensure the student receives special education and related services during the period of virtual or hybrid learning.

  • Proactive: A contingency plan is developed to address the possibility that emergency circumstances may require the district to shift to another instructional model, such as virtual or remote learning, without a disruption to needed special education services.


In What Situations is a Contingency Plan Necessary?

A contingency plan may be necessary based on the unique individual circumstances of a specific student and may address a specific situation when in-person instruction is not possible due to an emergency, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. 


In What Situations are Contingency Plans Not Appropriate?

A contingency plan is for emergency purposes only. 

Contingency plans cannot be used to address a student’s behavior or used as a means to discipline a student or shorten a student’s school day.


How should the IEP Identify when the Contingency Plan will be Implemented?

Providing clear and concise statements in the IEP of when a contingency plan will be implemented is required so that everyone, including the parent and all staff supporting the student, know “when” and “how” the student’s special education services will change. When developing the contingency plan, the IEP team must develop clear language that identifies precisely when school staff should begin implementing a student’s contingency plan.


How Often are Contingency Plans Updated?

In the same way that IEPs are updated at least annually to address student growth and changing circumstances, a student’s contingency plan should also be updated since it is part of the IEP to ensure that each individual student is receiving FAPE based on their current strengths and needs at any given point in time.


What Barriers to Learning Should be Addressed when Developing Contingency Plans?

Changing the frequency, amount, duration, and location of IEP services can have a number of unexpected or unintended consequences for individual students based on their unique circumstances and disability-related needs. Thus, IEP teams should use caution and engage in discussion when developing contingency plans. IEP teams are encouraged to identify various barriers to learning each individual student might experience when IEP services are not provided in-person and discuss how the student will receive FAPE.


When moving from in-person learning or other changes to location of IEP services, common unintended consequences as well as barriers to learning include:


  • Changes in social and emotional functioning that may impact behavioral needs of students (e.g. anxiety, isolation)

  • Changes in student’s ability to transition between activities and learning environments (e.g. more down time, transitioning across technologies or platforms)

  • Changes in a student’s independence and self-determination to work through new problems or challenges to accessing and engaging in learning (e.g. learning new technology, completing work independently between instructional sessions)

  • Changes in what student’s need to know or utilize to access learning (e.g. technology, accommodations, assistive technology)

  • Changes to what staff or families may need to know through program modifications and supports for school staff (e.g. technology, support for family engagement and two-way communication)

  • Changes to how progress is monitored (e.g. the need for more frequent formative assessment)


How are Contingency Plans Monitored?

Because contingency plans are part of the IEP, they should be monitored in the same way IEPs are required to be monitored.  School staff should have procedures in place to ensure that contingency plans are being implemented as written and are assisting the student with making progress toward IEP goals and in the general curriculum while the contingency plan is in effect. If the contingency plan is not able to be implemented for any reason or the student is not making progress when the contingency plan is in effect (e.g. technology, student engagement, staffing) then the IEP team must meet to review and revise the student’s IEP to ensure FAPE is provided to the student.


Guiding Questions When Moving from In-Person to Virtual Instruction

The following are additional discussion questions from DPI’s A Guide to Implementing IEPs and Monitoring Progress of IEP Goals When Moving Between In-Person, Hybrid, or Virtual Learning Environments. IEP teams can use these questions when thinking about changes in a student’s learning environment when moving from in-person to virtual instruction.

  • How are a student’s disability-related needs best supported through synchronous learning (instruction between student and teacher at the same time) or asynchronous learning (students accessing instruction on their own time and at their own pace) so the student can make progress on IEP goals and in age or grade-level curriculum and standards?

  • Are there individual student strengths or challenges that either remove or create potential barriers to implementing the goal in a virtual or hybrid learning environment? Have these been considered?

  • How do IEP goals related to functional skills translate into the home, virtual, or hybrid learning environment? Think: What does the target skill in the IEP goal look like?

  • What are the student's assistive technology needs when moving from in-person to virtual or hybrid learning?

  • What social opportunities exist in the home or community to address disability-related needs that require interaction with others?

  • What supports, equipment, or services might the family need so the family can support the student's learning at home?

  • What supports exist in the home environment to help the student access virtual or hybrid instruction?

  • What mental health or social and emotional support may the student need when moving to a virtual or hybrid learning environment?

  • Has the student received virtual or hybrid instruction in the past? If so, how did the student respond to that instruction?


Guiding Questions for Virtual Monitoring Progress of IEP Goals

  • How does synchronous learning (instruction between student and teacher is at the same time) or asynchronous learning (students accessing instruction on their own time and at their own pace) impact reliability, validity, feasibility, and usefulness of data collected to measure student progress?

  • What barriers may exist in progress monitoring tools previously used in face-to-face settings that may prevent the student from accessing and demonstrating what they know and can do in a virtual learning environment?

  • If IEP teams are using a published tool to monitor progress, is there guidance for the use of the tool in a virtual setting?

  • How might the student demonstrate knowledge of the skill(s) outlined in the IEP goal in a virtual learning environment?

  • What additional training and support may be required for the student or for families to support the student when monitoring progress toward IEP goal attainment?

  • What educational technologies, applications, and platforms have been considered that may assist with monitoring progress of IEP goals?

  • How do the effect(s) of the student's disability and disability-related need(s) affect the student's demonstration of the academic or social emotional behavior targeted in the IEP goal? And have these effects been considered when selecting procedures and tools used to measure IEP goal progress when moving from an in-person to virtual or hybrid learning environment?


Additional Resources

Introduction to Monitoring Progress of IEP Goals WI DPI web page with resources and tools to assist with creating IEP goals that can be reasonably monitored, identifying procedures for measuring progress appropriate to the target skills identified in IEP goals, and understanding the role of IEP goal progress data in Step 5 (Analyze Progress) of the CCR IEP process.

The Monitoring of Progress and Checklist for Developing Progress Monitoring Procedures and for IEP Team Reviews WI DPI resource that provides basic progress monitoring procedures that can be adapted for use in a virtual learning environment.

National Center on Intensive Intervention: Frequently Asked Questions on Collecting Progress Monitoring Data Virtually This webpage provides guiding questions on determining if the progress monitoring tool is appropriate for virtual use. It also includes information on specific vendors and tools that have resources on how to use their product in a virtual learning environment.

Planning for Successful Delivery of Progress Monitoring In Virtual Settings This resource accompanies the National Center on Intensive Intervention: Frequently Asked Questions on Collecting Progress Monitoring Data Virtually (see above) and provides helpful tips for educators to prepare for the administration of progress monitoring assessments virtually.

Removing Barriers to Effective Distance Learning by Applying the High-Leverage Practices Tips and Tools From the Collaboration for Effective Educator Development, Accountability, and Reform (CEEDAR Center) and the National Center for Systemic Improvement (NCSI), this document outlines how HLPs can be employed to strengthen distance learning instruction for a diverse range of students by providing strategies to address common challenges students experience.

Telehealth: Virtual Service Delivery Updated Recommendations Tips from the National Association of School Psychologists for delivering services virtually. Includes important assessment and evaluation information.

Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction Considerations in Using Facial Coverings When Supporting Students during In-Person Instruction Recommendations on how to support students with various disability-related needs to support the safety of students and staff.

Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction COVID 19 Supplementary Resources This DPI special education team web page provides additional state and national resources that provide strategies and practices to support virtual and distance learning for students who receive special education through an Individualized Education Program. The page is sorted by topical resources such as supporting monitoring progress of IEP goals, early learners, students with neurodiverse and social and emotional needs, students participating in alternate standards, communication needs, transition aged students and others.

Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction CCR IEP 5 Step Process provides tips, guidance, online modules, and resources to identify effects of disability, disability-related needs, develop IEP goals, align IEP services, and analyze progress of IEP goals.

Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction COVID 19 Question and Answer Document a document originally developed on March 18, 2020, to respond to questions that were received regarding special education requirements from Local Education Agencies (LEAs) when school buildings were closed because of statewide orders for COVID-19. This document continues to be updated as the pandemic evolves.

Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction Moving From In-Person to Virtual and Hybrid Learning Environments a webpage that provides a written guide, presentation slides, recorded webinar and additional consideration and resources when implementing IEPs and monitoring progress of IEP goals when moving between in-person, hybrid, and virtual learning environments.

Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction Providing Related Services Via Teleservice Additional resources, tips, and requirements related to the provision of teleservice.

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