U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks at the White House in March. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Education)

School districts must comply with federal special education laws during the school closures despite pleas from school administrators for flexibility, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced Monday.

Responding to a request from Congress for recommendations on changes to special education requirements during the coronavirus pandemic, DeVos declined to waive the bulk of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, saying “learning must continue for all students during the COVID-19 national emergency.”

“We undertook this task acknowledging the reality that most students and teachers are at home today; yet, America’s teachers want to keep teaching and students need to keep learning,” DeVos said. “While the department has provided extensive flexibility to help schools transition, there is no reason for Congress to waive any provision designed to keep students learning. With ingenuity, innovation and grit, I know this nation’s educators and schools can continue to faithfully educate every one of its students.”

Disability rights advocates were relieved at DeVos’ announcement. They had feared that even temporary waivers would be a gateway to broader or more permanent changes to the 1975 law, which guarantees a quality, appropriate education to all students, regardless of their abilities.

“We are thrilled the Department of Education is not recommending waiving these key protections,” said Miriam Rollin, director of the Education Civil Rights Alliance and an attorney for the National Center for Youth Law, a nonprofit law firm based in Washington, D.C. “We agree with the DoE that broad waivers are not necessary and would be harmful to children with disabilities.”

DeVos’ announcement came as a surprise to disability rights advocates as well as school district officials. Both groups lobbied the Department of Education heavily during the 30-day window Congress gave DeVos to recommend waivers. The request for recommendations was part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, which was signed in late March.

“I’m really surprised. It’s slim pickings. They’re not giving us a lot of wiggle room,” said Laura Preston, legislative advocate for the Association of California School Administrators, one of dozens of administrator and school board groups around the country that asked for temporary adjustments to special education laws while schools are closed.

Preston’s group as well as others said that districts need waivers for certain parts of the law, such as timelines for assessments, one-on-one therapy and deadlines for parent meetings to discuss a student’s education plan. In the shift to online learning, some of those services are almost impossible to deliver, they argued, opening districts to lawsuits from parents.

Some parents had been especially nervous about potential waivers, fearing their children would miss out on services such as occupational and speech therapy, one-on-one aides and behavioral therapy.

“I am so relieved,” said Jennifer Grinager, whose son Ben has autism and receives services at his school in Templeton near San Luis Obispo. “(DeVos’) decision helps towards addressing my concerns because it certainly gives me power to fight for my son.”

The issue is not completely resolved, though, Rollin said. Congress must accept DeVos’ recommendations and can still make changes of its own, although a previous attempt, during the CARES Act negotiations in March, was scratched.

“This is a very pleasant surprise, but the fight isn’t over,” Rollin said.

DeVos did recommend small changes to the law, including a waiver for the deadlines for children to transition from early childhood programs to regular schools. While schools are closed, DeVos is recommending that students continue receiving services through their early childhood programs until schools can conduct face-to-face assessments for placement in regular school.

The change makes sense for schools and students, Rollin said.

Story originally published by EdSource.

Carolyn Jones