Some schools have been struggling to provide special education services during the school closures. (Photo by Alison Yin/EdSource)

As schools scramble to teach students with disabilities during the school closures, a coalition of more than 70 disability rights organization is urging the federal government to uphold special education laws despite the challenges of online education.

“Times of crisis are not the time to roll back civil rights. It’s actually time to roll up our sleeves and do it right,” said Wendy Tucker, senior policy director of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools, a national advocacy group based in New York. “When you roll back civil rights protections, it’s very hard to bring them back.”

Tucker’s group is among the dozens that submitted a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos last week imploring her to keep intact the 1973 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which guarantees students with disabilities a free public education in the U.S.

As part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, signed March 27, DeVos has until late April to submit to Congress her recommendations, if any, for changes to federal special education laws in light of school closures across the country. Changes to the law would affect students with autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome and other disabilities, as well as those who receive classroom accommodations, known as 504 plans, due to learning disabilities.

Special education has been a challenge for some school districts as they shift to online education because many services for disabled students entail in-person and one-on-one instruction, such as occupational and physical therapy.

Some district administrators have said they fear lawsuits from parents if special education services are altered or delayed during the school closures.

‘Unprecedented global crisis’

The letter acknowledges the challenges schools and families are facing during the “unprecedented global crisis,” but urges teachers, school administrators and families to come up with creative solutions.

“It is clear that during this rapidly evolving crisis, flexibility, patience and innovation will be needed,” the letter says. “(But) federal education laws must be protected. There is no need for Congress to provide waiver authority to the U.S. Secretary of Education.”

In California, the Department of Education has been encouraging schools to continue providing services to the state’s 800,000 special education students during the pandemic. Many schools are providing laptops or tablets, as well as internet service, to students with disabilities; arranging one-on-one video instruction; conducting online parent and teacher meetings for students’ education plans and taking other steps to make sure students with disabilities continue receiving an education.

But even under the best of circumstances, schools may be unable to meet every regulation in special education laws and waivers will be necessary, said Laura Preston, legislative advocate for the Association of California School Administrators, representing some 17,000 school superintendents, principals and other administrators. “I know disability rights’ groups are worried, but it’s not about (us) abdicating responsibility. It’s about creating a system that works for everyone, and where districts don’t get sued,” she said.

“In the system that’s in place now, a lot of districts are in violation because they can’t meet certain timelines. It’s not intentional,” she said. “The school leaders in our association are trying very hard to do the right thing for kids. But these are challenging times and some flexibility is needed.”

Her group, along with administrator organizations in most other states, is requesting DeVos ask Congress for a 60-day waiver of specific deadlines in the special education law, such as the right to a timely first-time assessment of a student’s needs. Initial evaluations should be conducted in person, the group said, rather than online.

Temporary waivers

Nationally, the National Association of Directors of Special Education and the Council of Administrators of Special Education also sent a letter last week to the U.S. Department of Education requesting temporary waivers for deadlines, data collection, parent meeting procedures and other issues.

But federal law already provides flexibility for parent meetings, hearings, evaluations and other topics, said Meghan Whittaker, director of policy and advocacy for the National Center for Learning Disabilities, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C.

“We as a community are united. No waivers are necessary,” she said. “These are challenging times and we’re not saying ‘no’ to flexibility. But the solution is not waivers. The solution is to help schools build capacity to do this well.”

Disability rights advocates fear that waivers will become permanent, and lead to an erosion of a federal civil rights law that’s been in place for more than 45 years. Before the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, students with disabilities received little or no education and were often institutionalized. The law is one of several landmark federal laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, that are intended to provide people with disabilities equal access to work, education, housing and other rights.

One thing both sides agree on is the need for more funding for special education, particularly when schools reopen. The federal government has not fully funded special education for years, leaving states and local districts to make up the cost. When schools reopen, many students — especially those with disabilities — will likely have fallen behind and will require extra services to catch up, Whittaker said.

Administrators are asking for additional federal money to offset costs related to special education, including more money for mental health and trauma services, academic assistance and legal settlements stemming from lawsuits filed by parents.

Whittaker agreed that more federal money will be needed.

“The closures are going to have a profound impact on students with disabilities,” Whittaker said. “Schools are going to need more therapists, more classroom aides, more planning. Special ed was already woefully underfunded, and that situation is not going to be fixed when schools reopen.”

Story originally published by EdSource.

Carolyn Jones