Updated: May 20, 2020
As schools across the nation shutter in response to coronavirus, federal officials are giving educators additional insight on how to handle the needs of students with disabilities.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights issued a webinar and fact sheet this week for education leaders aimed at ensuring that students’ civil rights are upheld while schools are closed due to COVID-19. The webinar reminds school officials that distance learning must be accessible unless “equally effective alternate access is provided.”
Online learning tools should be compatible with any assistive technology that students use and schools must regularly test their online offerings for accessibility, the Education Department said. “OCR’s accessibility webinar is intended to remind school leaders at the elementary, secondary and postsecondary levels of their legal obligations to ensure that all students, including students with disabilities, can access online and virtual learning programs,” said Kenneth L. Marcus, the Education Department’s assistant secretary for civil rights. “Students with disabilities must have access to educational technology utilized by schools, and OCR will continue to work to ensure that no student is excluded from utilizing these important tools.”
If a student with a disability is absent from school for an extended period because of coronavirus, but the school remains open, the student has a right to continue to receive a free appropriate public education, or FAPE, the Education Department’s fact sheet states. But if schools close and no educational services are being provided, then the school does not have to serve students with disabilities, the agency said. In addition, the fact sheet explains that individualized education program teams are not required to conduct in-person meetings while schools are closed. And, any evaluation of a student with a disability that must be done face to face should be postponed until the school reopens.
Evaluations that do not need to be done in person may proceed so long as the child’s parent or guardian consents, the Education Department indicated. At least 74,000 schools serving 38.8 million students across the country have announced plans to close because of coronavirus, according to Education Week.
The latest information from the Education Department expands on guidance issued last week on how to address the needs of students with disabilities during the pandemic.
Advocates with the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, which represents special education attorneys, have criticized the Education Department’s approach, arguing that the right to FAPE under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act remains intact even when schools close.