News: What guidance does the US ED have on re-opening schools in the pandemic?

This broad guidance document includes content relevant to students with disabilities

On 13 May 2021, the United States Department of Education issued guidance about re-opening schools during the pandemic. The department presented recommendations in the form of questions and answers aimed at communicating with parents and educators about a wide range of issues. The document is entitled “Questions and Answers on Civil Rights and School Reopening in the COVID-19 Environment.”

The document presenting the guidance is organized into sections about protecting the rights of students from discrimination on the basis of (a) disability; (b) race, color, or national origin; and (c) sex; a fourth part provides guidace about protecting students from retaliation for filing a complaint. As one might infer, the guidance addressed issues beyond those having to do with students with disabilities.

The first section is relevant to disabilities, however. Here are a few highlights (please remember that these are my interpretations and surely should not be taken as legal advice!):

  • Schools that were required to meet non-discriminatory standards under Section 504 prior to the pandemic must meet those standards when re-opening.

  • Schools that do not provide services as a part of a Free and Appropriate Education plan because they have closed for all students will not be liable for violating FAPE.

  • Schools can comply with Section 504 requirements by implementing IEPs developed in accord with IDEA.

  • State-, district-, or school-wide policies that “are designed to reduce or limit services for students with disabilities, without regard to the individualized needs of those students, violate Section 504.”

  • Schools should not enforce masking rules for students who have disabilities and cannot, because of their disability, wear masks safely.

  • Schools should provide alternative means for communication (e.g., interpreters, real-time captioning) when masking interferes with communicating for some individuals with disabilities such as those who are deaf or hard of hearing, have low vision, or have speech disabilities.

I encourage school administrators and teachers to review this document closely. It is important, not just because it provides guidance about working with students with disabilities, but because it encourages sensible consideration of the rights of both students with and without disabilities. For parents, this document (or at least the first few pages of it) should probably find a way into the file where you keep materials to consult in case something seems like it isn't going right, especially in the coming months as schools re-open with the waning of the pandemic.

Read or download a pdf the Q-&-A document here.