On March 21, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) responded to numerous questions and concerns from educators and families about whether and how to serve students with disabilities during the COVID-19 outbreak by releasing a supplemental factsheet: Supplemental Fact Sheet Addressing the Risk of COVID-19 in Preschool, Elementary and Secondary Schools While Serving Children with Disabilities.
As districts and schools have been grappling with how to maintain the health and safety of students and also meet their civil rights obligations under law, it became apparent that many school districts were “reluctant to provide any distance instruction because they believe that federal disability law presents insurmountable barriers to remote education.”
ED made clear: compliance with special education and civil rights laws “should not prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction.”
ED reiterated that even during these uncertain times, school districts “must provide a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) consistent with the need to protect the health and safety of students with disabilities and those individuals providing education, specialized instruction, and related services to these students.” However, the guidance indicated that “these exceptional circumstances may affect how all educational and related services and supports are provided, and the Department will offer flexibility where possible.”
The guidance suggests that ED understands it may not be feasible for schools to provide all of the same services in the same ways they used to, but urged collaboration in how educators and parents work together and innovation in how services are delivered. ED confirmed that existing special education law provides ample room for flexibility in how schools can meet the needs of students in this precarious time.
While ED used this guidance to describe the flexibility that exists under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Congress is looking to grant the Secretary of Education authority to waive civil rights protections. In a statement, NCLD President & CEO, Lindsay Jones, said that “with the release of the most recent guidance from the U.S. Department of Education (ED), it became abundantly clear that such waivers are not needed,” stated Jones. “In fact, the guidance offered many ways that ED will offer flexibility to states and districts within the bounds of IDEA. We don’t need waivers. Instead, what we need now is investment in our schools.”
NCLD will continue to work with Congress and the Administration to ensure students with disabilities’ rights are protected and that they have an equitable and meaningful opportunity to learn during school closures. We will be providing resources for parents and educators in the coming weeks and will be sharing more examples of how schools can meet their obligations in new ways. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram for the latest news and resources to support students with disabilities.
Other resources from ED related to the COVID-19 crisis include:
- Fact Sheet: Addressing the Risk of COVID-19 in Schools While Protecting the Civil Rights of Students (March 16, 2020);
- Office of Civil Rights Webinar on Online Education and Website Accessibility (Length: 00:07:08) (March 16, 2020);
- Questions and Answers on Providing Services to Children with Disabilities During the COVID-19 Outbreak (March 12, 2020);
- Fact Sheet: Impact of COVID-19 on Assessments and Accountability under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (March 12, 2020)
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