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Feds: Schools Must Comply with Law for Students with Disabilities Despite Pandemic

This week, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) issued the latest in a series of memos to states and local school districts reminding them of their obligations under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to provide eligible students with a free appropriate public education (FAPE) during the novel Chinese coronavirus pandemic which closed schools nationwide last year.

“Serving all children and students with disabilities in our public schools isn’t just written into law – it’s a moral obligation and strong equitable practice. When we recognize and celebrate these differences as strengths, and when we help all children make progress toward challenging educational goals, everyone benefits,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. According to the new guidance, “the Department expects that all [school districts] will provide every student with the opportunity for full-time, in-person learning for the 2021-2022 school year.”

“My phone has been ringing off the hook with parents who want to know their rights,” said MJC partner and education law attorney Tom Blessing, who represents students with disabilities in public schools. “I can hear the confusion and desperation in their voices: my child can’t wear a mask, my child’s not getting speech therapy, my child can’t do online learning, I don’t want my child to be vaccinated—the list goes on.” According to Blessing, local school boards seem to think they can do whatever they want in the name of “safety,” regardless of the impact their decisions have on the most vulnerable students whom they are supposed to be serving. “A lot of these school boards are making policy without even considering their obligations to comply with federal law, most notably the IDEA and Americans with Disabilities Act. They just do it—many times over the strong opposition of the parents who elected them.”

Last year, Blessing represented several children whose school districts did not implement their Individualized Education Programs (IEP)—using “safety” as an excuse. “I’ve had to remind several of them that the pandemic does not excuse their compliance with federal law,” Blessing said. “It’s reassuring to see these school boards get another friendly reminder from their largest source of funding.”

Katherine Neas, acting assistant secretary of OSERS, summed up the new guidance this way: “The pandemic didn’t alter IDEA’s guarantee of FAPE. This school year will be important for children, students, and educators.” Blessing said the memo will help his clients get the education they are entitled to receive under the law: “This new guidance from Washington just confirms what I’ve been saying all along.”

If you have questions about your child’s educational rights, call our office at 317/576-8580 for a free consultation.