Special Education Rights During COVID-19 Pandemic

By Mary Rohmiller, Co-Director, State Policy and Policy Counsel

It’s amazing how our lives have changed in two weeks. Many of us now find ourselves not only working from home, but now balancing that with keeping our children engaged in home learning—whether through Family Equality’s virtual event calendar, other online resources and inspiration, or structured distance learning and instruction provided by your school. As a parent of two elementary school-aged children in Virginia, where schools are closed, I am personally grateful for the resources that our teachers and administrators have made available, as well as online communities of parents and educators who are sharing ideas of how to incorporate creativity into learning while remaining mindful of our kids’ social, emotional, and mental health (as well as our own as parents!).

In this time of so much uncertainty—i.e. how long will schools be closed and, for those that haven’t yet closed, if and when they will—many parents in our community face additional anxiety surrounding the impact of this interruption of classroom learning time on our children with disabilities. Children who are eligible for special education and related services are particularly vulnerable to regression in skills when classroom learning is disrupted, and they are entitled to receive services to assist with distance learning. If you are a parent or guardian of a child with an IEP and your school district has implemented distance learning, you have the right to an IEP team meeting to determine what homebound services would benefit your child, and you are entitled to those services at no charge.

Some school district officials blamed federal laws protecting students with disabilities as a reason to not provide distance learning, claiming that because it was too difficult to provide required services remotely for these children, they would not continue education for any children in their district. The U.S. Department of Education issued a “Supplemental Fact Sheet” last week stating that compliance with these federal laws should not prevent the district from implementing distance learning. While this document could (and should) have gone further in explicitly protecting the rights of students with disabilities in the context of remote learning, it at least discusses the requirement for school districts to make efforts to provide services to these students in some manner and to work with parents to determine how to meet their child’s individual needs.

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Part of what lead to this problem of school districts thinking it was “better” to close than attempt distance learning was the confusing guidance the U.S. Department of Education issued the prior week indicating that if a school is closed but not providing educational services to the general student population, it wouldn’t have to provide services for students with disabilities at all. Our good friends at the National Center for Youth Law and the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates disagree with that interpretation of federal requirements because of the harmful impact of the loss of educational services on children with disabilities. Even though the federal government is once again leaving marginalized students behind, we are grateful for the dedicated school officials who want to do the right thing to support students with disabilities and their families regardless of whether the general school population is receiving distance-based educational services.

Whether your school district has implemented distance learning or not, if you have a child with special needs, we strongly encourage you to reach out to your IEP team to discuss your child’s particular needs and what homebound services would be most helpful to them. And if you are in a district that has not closed yet, we suggest requesting an IEP team meeting to proactively discuss the potential need for such services. Further, if your schools are open but your child is required to stay home due to a condition that puts them at a heightened risk for COVID-19, there should be an IEP meeting to discuss appropriate accommodations for your child.

Finally, in the CARES Act (the $2 trillion stimulus package signed into law on March 27), there is a provision asking Secretary DeVos to recommend to Congress which provisions of federal law protecting students with disabilities should be waived under current conditions. Using this crisis as an excuse to undermine civil rights laws protecting students with disabilities is unprecedented and unacceptable, and we at Family Equality will be watching closely for the issuance of this report and will not stand quietly if it allows schools to circumvent their obligations.

In these unchartered times, we pause to appreciate those who are setting the gold standard for serving the needs of our children with disabilities. The National Disability Rights Network is uplifting examples of school districts, teachers, or parents who are serving kids with disabilities well during this pandemic through the hashtag #PandemicPositive, and we encourage you to join in if you have a positive experience to share or just want to read some good news! And remember, on some days, learning experiences may consist of eating ice cream and snuggling up for your fifth viewing of Frozen 2, and we hope you allow yourself that grace and enjoy every second of it!