The U.S. Department of Education released guidance on March 12, 2020 specifically tailored to the current health crisis: Questions and Answers on Providing Services to Children with Disabilities During the Coronavirus Disease 2019 Outbreak. This guidance specifically addresses school closures and moving to other modes of education for students with disabilities, essentially stating that:
1) The relevant laws do not directly address how special education must be handled in a situation where schools are closed for an extended period of time, such as for a virus like COVID-19;
2) If a local education agency (LEA) is not able to provide any educational services to students, then it is not required to provide special education services, but may be required to retroactively offer compensatory services once school resumes under ordinary conditions; and
3) If an LEA does continue to provide educational opportunities to the general student population during a crisis, it “must ensure that students with disabilities also have equal access to the same opportunities, including the provision of FAPE.”
The guidance also addresses circumstances in which special education schools close, students who become infected are out of school for extended periods of time, and schools consider including contingency plans in their IEPs. If you have questions about those issues, please refer to the complete guidance document.
On March 16, 2020, the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education issued its own new guidance: Fact Sheet: Addressing the Risk of COVID-19 in Schools While Protecting the Civil Rights of Students. The OCR Guidance focused on directly addressing the question of how IEP team meetings should be conducted during periods in which school buildings are closed and communities are exercising social distancing. It essentially states that if the IEP team is unable to meet in person, it should meet by teleconference or other remote methods to make determinations about how a student’s needs can be met under whatever conditions now exist due to school closure and any quarantine that might be imposed on the student due to localized health considerations. The same is true for personnel implementing Section 504 Plans. If an evaluation requires a face-to-face assessment or observation, it should be delayed until the school reopens.
On March 21, 2020, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) of the U.S. Department of Education issued supplementary guidance: Supplemental Fact Sheet Addressing the Risk of COVID-19 in Preschool, Elementary and Secondary Schools While Serving Children with Disabilities. This guide clarifies that federal law should not prevent schools from offering distance learning opportunities to all students, including students with disabilities. As school districts take necessary steps to address the health, safety, and well-being of all their students and staff, educators can use distance learning opportunities to serve all students. Furthermore, the Department encouraged states and districts to explore and utilize available flexibility, within the confines of the law, to educate students with disabilities during the pandemic.
It is important to note that the Department acknowledged that during the COVID-19 crisis, schools may not be able to provide all services in the same manner in which they are typically provided. While some schools may provide certain IEP services to some students in-person, it may not be feasible or safe for some institutions to provide offerings such as hands-on physical therapy, occupational therapy, or tactile sign language educational services. However, many disability-related modifications and services may be effectively provided online (e.g., extensions of time for assignments, videos with accurate captioning or embedded sign language interpreting, and accessible reading materials, as well as many speech or language services through video conferencing).
NOTE: Guidance from the U.S. Department of Education does not replace applicable federal, state, and local laws and regulations but is, instead, the Department’s interpretation of those authorities in the context of the specific current situation.