Switch to Remote Learning Could Leave Students With Disabilities Behind

By: - March 24, 2020 12:00 am

A student receives her school laptop for home study at the Lower East Side Preparatory School in New York. Some school districts are not offering remote instruction yet because they’re still trying to figure out how to serve all students, including students with disabilities. John Minchillo/The Associated Press

School leaders are grappling with how to deliver special education services — and stay compliant with state and federal civil rights law — as governors shut down school buildings to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

A handful of districts announced in recent weeks that they won’t yet require distance learning because they haven’t figured out a way to serve all students, including students with disabilities, English Language Learners and students who don’t have internet access at home.

The U.S. Department of Education told schools Saturday that they should not let concerns over how to reach students with disabilities stop them from offering distance learning, and that they don’t have to reach all students the same way.

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

For instance, the department’s fact sheet said, teachers could read out written assignments to blind students over the phone, or teachers could provide such students with an audio recording of the document.

The department told schools two weeks ago that if they’re completely closed because of the coronavirus, they don’t have to offer special education. But if schools are still providing education services, they must give students with disabilities equal access to the same opportunities.  

The guidance gave districts some wiggle room: “The Department understands there may be exceptional circumstances that could affect how a particular service is provided.” 

But confusion persisted, and states asked for more guidance, said Kathleen Airhart, program director for special education outcomes at the Council of Chief State School Officers, a Washington, D.C.-based organization of officials who head state education departments. 

Airhart said Monday that she hadn’t yet spoken to enough state leaders to know if the new fact sheet answers all their questions. But, she said, it should help.

“I think it provides a lot of clarity to states,” she said.

Congress is debating the matter, too. As of Monday morning, the U.S. Senate relief package would require DeVos to recommend possible waivers to legal protections for students with disabilities, to give states “limited flexibility” to serve such students during the pandemic. 

Disability rights advocates say winding back core civil rights protections is a bad idea.

“Times of crisis are not times to roll back civil rights, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and figure out how to make things work,” said Wendy Tucker, senior director of policy for the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools, a New York City-based advocacy group.

Confusion over how to best serve students with disabilities may deepen as governors extend school closures. Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, last week became the first governor to close schools through the end of the academic year.

Forty-six states have temporarily closed schools in response to the coronavirus pandemic, according to Education Week, a nonprofit education news outlet. 

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Sophie Quinton

Sophie Quinton writes about fiscal and economic policy for Stateline. Previously, she wrote for National Journal.