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

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.

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 disabled students; 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.

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.”

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  1. Brian Riley 8 months ago8 months ago

    1973? The law started in 1975 (under a different name)… Public Law 94-142.

  2. Dr. C 8 months ago8 months ago

    Unfortunately, school districts’ special education departments have historically been targeted as low-hanging fruit. This should be a wake up call to advocates, parent rights groups, and special ed attorneys. Is this what you’ve created? You’ve put such unreasonable demands on districts and encroached so much of general ed funds that now that districts need help, the federal government may alter IDEA. Karma.

  3. Naomy Baptiste 8 months ago8 months ago

    Why?

    Every time there is any type of crisis. the government takes away from the fund that is important! There are many people suffering, but to take from the blind, the deaf, paraplegic, behavioral, mental disorder, and etc. is just plain wrong! What next, take away Social Security for the seniors to fund something else…….

  4. Wyly Harris Kight-Moore 8 months ago8 months ago

    Our Special Education laws do not need to be abbrogated in order to provide a cover for the perceived inability of states to creatively work with parents to temporarily provide modified services to our students. I am a special education Home/Hospital teacher in Hemet, Calif., formerly providing 7 students daily services. My district abruptly shut down March 13 with no planning or strategies allowed for me to even contact my students resulting from district's administrative … Read More

    Our Special Education laws do not need to be abbrogated in order to provide a cover for the perceived inability of states to creatively work with parents to temporarily provide modified services to our students. I am a special education Home/Hospital teacher in Hemet, Calif., formerly providing 7 students daily services. My district abruptly shut down March 13 with no planning or strategies allowed for me to even contact my students resulting from district’s administrative fear. I have student advocated all my adult life under the umbrella of handicapped student’s rights.
    What our Federal Ed. Dept. needs to do is provide aid, planning, support for our states.

    DeVos is furthering her outspoken agenda to eliminate the Federal Dept. of Education, and to curtail public school student rights in favor of proliferating charter schools, including religious based. This current attempt must be denied any credibility.

  5. Therese Sipes 8 months ago8 months ago

    Given flexibility in timelines and service delivery is already enacted, I don’t believe a waiver is necessary. We can’t eliminate the right to a free, appropriate public education for millions because “some people might take advantage” of the lack of service provision during a national emergency. The utilization of ESY and compensatory services ensures students get what families and IEP teams agreed was educationally necessary. Any waiver would guarantee those needs continue to be unmet … Read More

    Given flexibility in timelines and service delivery is already enacted, I don’t believe a waiver is necessary. We can’t eliminate the right to a free, appropriate public education for millions because “some people might take advantage” of the lack of service provision during a national emergency. The utilization of ESY and compensatory services ensures students get what families and IEP teams agreed was educationally necessary. Any waiver would guarantee those needs continue to be unmet in one of our most vulnerable populations.

  6. David Vigil 8 months ago8 months ago

    I agree 100% that special education should still be conducted in this desperate time. Most students will regress without their one-on-one time. Students with special needs should not be forgotten about because of a pandemic. My six year old daughter has autism and a speech delay and my youngest daughter has a speech delay too. Although they are going to a private school, they are still receiving ABA therapy and speech therapy during the pandemic. … Read More

    I agree 100% that special education should still be conducted in this desperate time. Most students will regress without their one-on-one time. Students with special needs should not be forgotten about because of a pandemic. My six year old daughter has autism and a speech delay and my youngest daughter has a speech delay too. Although they are going to a private school, they are still receiving ABA therapy and speech therapy during the pandemic. The school has increased cleaning, no parents allowed in the building, students dropped off with their providers outside while maintaining social distancing, providers wear masks, and the providers are teaching the students proper hand cleaning and not touching the face discipline. My wife turned down a GS12 position in Seattle because Washington shut down all special need services. We decided to stay where we are at in Texas because some services are still being provided.

  7. Kai 8 months ago8 months ago

    These are very extenuating circumstances and uncertain times. Yes a waiver should be put in place. No one should be thinking of lawsuits at this time, or the near future; rather thank God you are still alive.

  8. Dawn Martin 8 months ago8 months ago

    More money?? As a teacher of 30+ years I have seen a radical increase in funds for students with disabilities and inclusion for students with disabilities (even a severe ID child in my GATE class as an appropriate placement). Meanwhile, there is no appreciation or funding for being gifted. Gifted students are dropping out in junior high and high school because they are tired of slow classes and being assigned the job of “helper/tutor” to … Read More

    More money?? As a teacher of 30+ years I have seen a radical increase in funds for students with disabilities and inclusion for students with disabilities (even a severe ID child in my GATE class as an appropriate placement). Meanwhile, there is no appreciation or funding for being gifted. Gifted students are dropping out in junior high and high school because they are tired of slow classes and being assigned the job of “helper/tutor” to students who can’t do the job. Our entire system is focused on students with disabilities. Many of these children have access to a fortune in special services, but I can’t get an ounce of help for a General Ed student, or a GATE student.

    I am sad to say that the truth is that many children are receiving a fortune in money with no perceived difference. Then there is the IEP, which offers no money and few services. IDEA is the money maker! Students with IEPs need both the help of parents, teachers, and any other help a parent can give. This I know. My son has been on a IEP since 3rd grade, and is now in 8th grade. I have had to pay for tutoring to support him in his education. First in reading, then in math. I put him in Khan Academy (free) myself and worked with him. Parents need to do this too, and only about 20% of the parents really work with their kids. After 30 years, that’s just my opinion. I am tired of parent telling me they are “tired” from working all day. That’s what I do too, then I go home and work as a parent since I chose to be a mom. Enough with the IDEA rights and funds! How about we think of all of the kids and spread the wealth a little bit!

    Replies

    • Naomy Baptiste 8 months ago8 months ago

      I am sorry that your job as a teacher was so disheartening. General Ed, Gifted, Special Ed they all have the same thing in common, education. Are we going forward with bringing everyone to speed, because the American education system on a whole is slow? Or are we going backward where children have to drop out of school to work because their family is doing their best to survive…..

  9. Angelic 8 months ago8 months ago

    As we all know, these are some difficult times that we are experiencing, definitely those with children with special needs. Being a parent to a child that is diagnosed with Autism and have worked within the educational system for over the past 20 years, I have not seen much improvement when it comes to special education that meet our children with special needs. Therefore, throwing more money towards the problem is not the answer nor … Read More

    As we all know, these are some difficult times that we are experiencing, definitely those with children with special needs. Being a parent to a child that is diagnosed with Autism and have worked within the educational system for over the past 20 years, I have not seen much improvement when it comes to special education that meet our children with special needs. Therefore, throwing more money towards the problem is not the answer nor will it resolve anything.

    We must start looking at the problems within each schools and figure out ways that will better improve the lives of our children with special needs. For example, equip parents with valuable workshops, equipment (tablet, computer and etc) and hands-on services, address the cause and not only the behavior/problem, provide better support and better pay for teachers and require administrators to pay back funds when they refuse or do not implement or improve their special education programs to include all children to improve their educational endeavors.

    These are some ideas, for now special education in America is the garbage, especially those who are minorities such as the black and brown.

  10. Nicole 8 months ago8 months ago

    This is ridiculous. No one has control over this pandemic. I’m a parent of special needs child. It appears parents are frustrated and overwhelmed since nothing is open and they cannot send their child to school or program for a break. Stop trying to be the teacher, therapist or other clinician. Stop complaining we and our children are dealing with a crisis at the moment. Like take a deep breath and chill.

  11. Gary Jones 8 months ago8 months ago

    The federal government has never fully funded going back to 94-142. It has never even reached twenty percent funding.

  12. MaryRose Hobman 8 months ago8 months ago

    Our school district in Delaware is not doing anything but reviewing everything the students have already learned. All work is optional

  13. Lisa Azzano 8 months ago8 months ago

    How about just enact a law that hasn't been presented yet to not jeopardize laws already in place. Special education schools and in fact all schools cannot be sued by anyone during the pandemic or any future lawsuits pertaining to the time the pandemic was in place that caused declines in services. This is a short time in our lives and changing laws is way too drastic. All the guidelines now are in place due … Read More

    How about just enact a law that hasn’t been presented yet to not jeopardize laws already in place. Special education schools and in fact all schools cannot be sued by anyone during the pandemic or any future lawsuits pertaining to the time the pandemic was in place that caused declines in services.

    This is a short time in our lives and changing laws is way too drastic. All the guidelines now are in place due to the pandemic. They are not permanent laws. We will eventually be able to lift the stay at home and go back to our normal lives. This is only a temporary situation. New laws are not the answer or needed. This is not an ongoing issue. So my suggestion is to give immunity to the crisis. This situation is out of everyone’s hands and no business, school or any other establishment should be held accountable for a crisis they did not create.

    The governors of each state have ordered the schools to shut down. They had no choice. Given no choice it was not their decision to not provide the services entailed in a child’s IEP. They have to abide by the stay at home mandated procedure. My son is autistic with a learning disability, has an IEP and attends a special ed district. Although this is very frustrating throughout this time, the schools are not to blame for a virus from China that infected the entire world.

  14. Gloria Buchanan 8 months ago8 months ago

    My son goes to school in Kansas City, MO. He has an IEP. He has learning disabilities and behavioral issues. However he is not learning in Kansas City public schools. He is kicked out most of the time; he has not received special education in public school like he is supposed to. Since last year, they cut transportation for special needs children. There were was no bus stop for my son. I can go on and on. It’s not right.

    Replies

    • Ms. Dan 1 month ago1 month ago

      Please contact your Community Legal Aid Hotline. This likely violates IDEA because the student has an IEP.

  15. Emma Rogers 8 months ago8 months ago

    As a special education teacher, I am aware of the broken system. However, we try so very hard to meet the educational needs of our students. The districts push a handful of staff to the limit. I have been cussed, lied to and on and even assaulted by parents. At this time I hope parents and advocates understand that most of us are doing the very best that we can. … Read More

    As a special education teacher, I am aware of the broken system. However, we try so very hard to meet the educational needs of our students. The districts push a handful of staff to the limit. I have been cussed, lied to and on and even assaulted by parents.

    At this time I hope parents and advocates understand that most of us are doing the very best that we can. Remember, success is not defined by the status quo. Success is being proud of our kids and acknowledge that students develop at different levels and we do not despise any level of growth in our students.

    Replies

    • Naomy Baptiste 8 months ago8 months ago

      Thanks for your commitment!!!

  16. Derek 8 months ago8 months ago

    More federal funding? You’re joking right?

    Schools waste so much money now. They’ve done nothing to inspire confidence enough to grant then more money.

    Replies

    • sue alexander 8 months ago8 months ago

      Really? Do you work in education? Do you have a special child in school? These teachers work like crazy! The federal government promised to help fund the IDEA. They never have. They simply mandated that the states pick up the burden.

  17. Beth 8 months ago8 months ago

    How will they find the extra therapists when there’s already a huge shortage in special ed staff, reportedly due to already having high caseloads and therefore being overworked? It’s a tough situation.

  18. Michelle 8 months ago8 months ago

    This waiver is not about taking the rights of special education students away. It is about protecting school systems from lawsuits that have already started popping up because of something that is completely beyond anyone's control. It has to be done because some people won't use common sense and they certainly will not show understanding. Not one teacher I know is happy about not meeting the needs of their students right now. But there will … Read More

    This waiver is not about taking the rights of special education students away. It is about protecting school systems from lawsuits that have already started popping up because of something that is completely beyond anyone’s control. It has to be done because some people won’t use common sense and they certainly will not show understanding. Not one teacher I know is happy about not meeting the needs of their students right now. But there will be some parents who see this as an opportunity to make some money or make some noise.

    None of this has been good for any of us. It’s not permanent; however, it is necessary. Being flexible when it comes to deadlines and services that cannot be met at this time is not infringing upon anyone’s “rights.” But the money spent on potential lawsuits will have detrimental effects on what is provided for all students, including those who don’t have special needs. Everyone seems to forget they have a right to an appropriate education too. But when programs for them have to be cut to pay for frivolous lawsuits, do those people who sued over a missed timeline care? It seems not.

    Replies

    • Christina Velasquez 8 months ago8 months ago

      You are 100% correct. What parents do not seem to understand is when they sue they take money out of the general education classroom. That provision needs to be looked at.

    • sue alexander 8 months ago8 months ago

      OK. I hear that, It really is unfair to allow parents to sue schools because their kids aren't receiving services due to the pandemic. But my child is in a special school due to his significant disabilities. He is regressing like crazy. He will lose years, not just the amount of time he is home. Should I accept that, due to the pandemic he should exit school 2 or 3 years behind where … Read More

      OK. I hear that, It really is unfair to allow parents to sue schools because their kids aren’t receiving services due to the pandemic. But my child is in a special school due to his significant disabilities. He is regressing like crazy. He will lose years, not just the amount of time he is home. Should I accept that, due to the pandemic he should exit school 2 or 3 years behind where he was or should the schools help to at least try to address his regression? I’m struggling to find the answers, too.

      I am OK with my “regular” kids basically loosing a semester. But my special kid is loosing way more than that. Is that OK?

      Honestly I don’t know.

  19. Sharon Peterson 8 months ago8 months ago

    I agree with this information and would like to share with Mount Vernon School District, Mtv. NY.

  20. Lisa Bliss 8 months ago8 months ago

    I am Special Education Assistant in our life skills class at our high school. I am also a mother of a high schooler that is on 504 plan as well. I too, am concerned with how the Special Education laws might change for the worst. In light of this pandemic and distant learning, there is no possible way right now that any schools can give the "minutes" and other resources that are required by … Read More

    I am Special Education Assistant in our life skills class at our high school. I am also a mother of a high schooler that is on 504 plan as well. I too, am concerned with how the Special Education laws might change for the worst. In light of this pandemic and distant learning, there is no possible way right now that any schools can give the “minutes” and other resources that are required by law, unfortunately.

    I don’t think there should be any permanent changes to our laws, I think for this time, the rest of the present school year to have a waiver strictly for this time. They can only fulfill what they can in these times which is by far not perfect, however that’s what is in front of us. When this pandemic subsides and we can safely move onto our new school year for 2020/2021, then we should have something in place to have us go back to what our laws are for Special Education and to not have the liability with later litigation and lawsuits from parents that want that time made up.

    Honestly, I don’t see how we could make up all that time, when so much time would have been lost. I think realistically we can only move forward because trying to make up will only make it more difficult. In conclusion to all this, my heart goes out to all those families, their struggles and their worries. It seems no matter which way we go there will not be an easy or perfect answers. We can only do the best we can.

  21. Beverly M. 8 months ago8 months ago

    My granddaughter is within 6 months of 10 years old and I am 60 with sole guardianship. We do have an IEP in place, but have been pushed through 3 districts after being forced out of her mainstream school of residence. I mistakenly allowed blind faith believing the fodder I was coerced into believing with the result of her being test evaluated at pre-k and kinder! She is unable to read and has been continuously given … Read More

    My granddaughter is within 6 months of 10 years old and I am 60 with sole guardianship. We do have an IEP in place, but have been pushed through 3 districts after being forced out of her mainstream school of residence.

    I mistakenly allowed blind faith believing the fodder I was coerced into believing with the result of her being test evaluated at pre-k and kinder! She is unable to read and has been continuously given simple subtraction and addition math due to neglect from the system! She has been tested and determined to have no intellectual disabilities, her professional diagnosis is PTSD. This is unacceptable with all that is available. There was even an elementary teacher who had the audacity to inform me that she was not held accountable for academic instruction for her age level!

    Please, Ms. DeVos, champion for these students to allow them to develop their intellectual abilities so they can rightfully become the productive capable citizens the Constitution allows them. Mensa & Immigrant children are protected & provided for under our Department of Education laws…please protect & provide for these undereducated children who are falling through the cracks of the system. The American Disabilities Act requires strengthening rather than “roll-backs”!

    Educating these individuals will alleviate the required costly Disability Benefits required now because they will be guided into productive wage earning, self sufficient taxpayers! Surely, President Trump would agree with legislation toward prevention investment as opposed to wasted entitlement program funding toward lifetime Social Security Disability liability.