Feds Clarify Special Ed Guidance for School Closures

by Michelle Diament | March 24, 2020

Troubled that some districts were choosing not to educate students at all because of special education concerns, the U.S. Department of Education is rethinking its advice to schools.

With a fact sheet released over the weekend, the Education Department said it is seeking to address a “serious misunderstanding.”

“It was extremely disappointing to hear that some school districts were using information from the Department of Education as an excuse not to educate kids,” said Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. “Nothing issued by this department should in any way prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction.”

Earlier this month, the Education Department issued guidance on how to serve students with disabilities as the vast majority of schools across the nation are shuttered due to COVID-19. That document indicated that during a closure, schools must continue to serve students with disabilities if they are educating general education students. But, if no one is being educated, schools do not need to serve those with disabilities.

Accordingly, fearing that they could not adequately serve all students remotely, some school districts from Pennsylvania to Oregon indicated that they would not turn to online learning.

The latest information from the Education Department, however, specifies that schools “should not opt to close or decline to provide distance instruction, at the expense of students, to address matters pertaining to services for students with disabilities.”

Schools must provide a free and appropriate public education, or FAPE, to those with disabilities, the fact sheet states, but the way that’s achieved during a coronavirus-related closure might be different. Educators and parents should work together to find ways to meet students’ needs through digital platforms, over the phone as well as through low-tech options like instructional packets and projects.

In cases where online learning materials are not accessible, schools can provide “equally effective alternate access to the curriculum or services” to students with disabilities, according to the fact sheet.

Federal education officials said that in light of the “exceptional circumstances” schools are facing, they will offer flexibility where they can.

“This is a time for creativity and an opportunity to pursue as much flexibility as possible so that learning continues,” DeVos said. “It is a time for all of us to pull together to do what’s right for our nation’s students.”

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