Alison Lin/EdSource
A special education class at Redwood Heights Elementary School in Oakland

Tucked inside the U.S. Senate’s coronavirus aid package is a provision that advocates say could upend special education for millions of students with disabilities.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, introduced Thursday by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, gives U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos 30 days to suggest a plan to Congress for waiving portions of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the 45-year-old federal law that guarantees students with disabilities a free public education.

Disabilities rights advocates called the proposal an attempt to permanently weaken — or eliminate — protections for students with autism, cerebral palsy, learning disorders and other special needs.

“This opens Pandora’s box,” said Ron Hager, managing attorney for education and employment at the National Disability Rights Network in Washington, D.C. “It’s not necessary, it’s deeply troubling and sets a terrible precedent.”

The proposal stems from the challenge faced by school districts nationwide as they close due to the coronavirus. To comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, districts need to provide an equal, high-quality education to their students enrolled in special education. But by shifting classes online, many students with disabilities are losing access to services that can only be provided in person, such as occupational and physical therapy.

Fearing lawsuits from parents, some districts, including the School District of Philadelphia, are curtailing online instruction for all students because they can’t guarantee equal access for everyone. It’s unknown whether any districts in California are limiting online education for that reason.

But the threat of lawsuits should not stop a school district from providing at least some services for disabled students, advocates said.

“This idea of not doing anything is just not good for kids, any kids,” said Selene Almazan, legal director of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, which advocates for the legal rights of students with disabilities. Schools should be creative in trying to teach special education students  while they’re at home, she said. Teachers can video-chat with parents, provide daily work packets, talk on the phone or via Zoom with students, if only for a few minutes a day, and take other steps to connect with students during the closure. Districts can also provide tablets or other technology to help students keep up with classwork and connect with teachers.

“Obviously, it’s not going to provide everything you get in a 7-hour school day, but it’s something,” she said. “We do not agree with the premise that no education is OK.”

The Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, passed in 1975, is the legal mandate for special education in the U.S. Before it passed, some districts offered no special classes or other options for students with disabilities, especially those with severe disabilities, Hager said.

In California, more than 800,000 students in California receive speech, occupational, behavior or physical therapy at school, along with assistance in the classroom and specialized instruction. Most students with disabilities spend at least 80 percent of their day in a regular classroom, but rely on special services to help them learn, Hager said.

Miriam Rollin, director of the Education Civil Rights Alliance at the National Center for Youth Law, a nonprofit law firm, said that she fears some members of Congress will use the current crisis as an excuse to scrap the law entirely, claiming that it puts undue hardship on school districts.

“It scapegoats kids with disabilities,” she said. “We should be pulling together and being creative, not looking for ways to eliminate educational opportunities for kids with special needs.”

Special education is often one of districts’ most expensive programs, especially as the number of students with disabilities increases. Twenty years ago, students in special education made up 10 percent of California’s overall K-12 enrollment. In 2018-19, the figure was 13 percent, largely due to an increase in students with autism.

Rollin does not think parents of disabled students are preparing to sue districts en masse over school closures.

“Does anyone expect special education, in the time of coronavirus, to look like it did before? No,” she said. “But it doesn’t mean you stop offering services to children with disabilities. You don’t say, ‘Oh well, it’s too tough, we can’t do that.’ It means you get creative and look for ways to make it work. There’s a whole lot of tools in the toolbox.”

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act needs to pass the Senate and House before it becomes law. Hager noted that the 30-day period for DeVos to recommend a plan to Congress might make the proposal irrelevant, since the coronavirus might be dying down by then.

“This is an excuse for them to waive the IDEA for next year, when the pandemic has passed,” he said. “Although we’re extremely hopeful that this proposal won’t go anywhere in the (Democratic-controlled) House and will be kept out of the final bill.”

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  1. Renee Burreson 4 days ago4 days ago

    I am a mother of a child with special needs and I fear for the long term consequences of such a movement to allow someone who does not know anything about our individual student’s needs to decide whether or not they need certain supports. Our students with disabilities should be allowed equal opportunity to learn. To allow this is a form of discrimination. It is not right and we should not stand for it.

  2. Erin 5 days ago5 days ago

    I am a special educator and a parent of a child with an IEP. I am fearful that if protection is not given to schools for the mandatory closure that in fact time, money and energy will be spent on comp Ed and due process. If this happens I do not believe that school districts will have the time, money or educational staff to address current needs of students. I want to spend my time … Read More

    I am a special educator and a parent of a child with an IEP. I am fearful that if protection is not given to schools for the mandatory closure that in fact time, money and energy will be spent on comp Ed and due process. If this happens I do not believe that school districts will have the time, money or educational staff to address current needs of students. I want to spend my time teaching and helping kids…not trying to undo the closure after the fact.

  3. Janeen Steel 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    As the executive director of Learning Rights Law Center, I find the decision to stop educating one group of students because they have a disability is troubling. Students with disabilities need to be educated as every other student. Right now, our most at risk populations should be cared for not abandoned.

  4. Joy 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    I'm an ESE teacher of profoundly impaired MS students @ a center school. Anyone who claims that it only takes a little creativity to engage ESE students doesn't have a clue. I'm also the mother of a soon to be 29 yo former student of my school. It would've been futile to try to instruct her via distance learning. I do NOT think there's some plan to take advantage of the current crisis to change … Read More

    I’m an ESE teacher of profoundly impaired MS students @ a center school. Anyone who claims that it only takes a little creativity to engage ESE students doesn’t have a clue. I’m also the mother of a soon to be 29 yo former student of my school. It would’ve been futile to try to instruct her via distance learning. I do NOT think there’s some plan to take advantage of the current crisis to change Spec. Ed laws. BTW, I am doing & will continue to do all I can to create on-line learning opportunities for my kiddos. I have ONE whose family has responded to our outreach to get our students connected to our system. That student will need one on one, hand over hand assistance to do ANYTHING I create due to the severity of disabilities the student has. It’s not as simple as some think to provide services. Actually, to assume so is disrespectful to and dismissive of those extremely impaired students who have the greatest need for differentiated instruction.

  5. Christy 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    Great article, but you left out behavior analysts who work most closely with individuals with autism spectrum disorder and a myriad of other disabilities.

  6. Robin Podway 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    Does anyone know if this made it into the final bill? How can we track this as the bill moves through the congressional process and beyond? Is there a hashtag, can we bring light to this and protest against it on Social Media? Bring it into the bigger media sphere?

  7. Dana 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    Just curious why anyone is speculating that this is to do away with IDEA. I am a dyslexia therapist for a district and taught special ed for 25 years. I really think that the administration understands the hardships this puts individuals and school districts. mean for one teacher to individualize instruction for his/ her 25 students when he/she probably has children at home that need caring for and instruction as … Read More

    Just curious why anyone is speculating that this is to do away with IDEA. I am a dyslexia therapist for a district and taught special ed for 25 years. I really think that the administration understands the hardships this puts individuals and school districts. mean for one teacher to individualize instruction for his/ her 25 students when he/she probably has children at home that need caring for and instruction as well. I applaud the current administration for recognizing this and taking it into consideration. If they take away special ed, there will be a mass exodus of teachers,

  8. marko 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    Carolyn, it is not unknown if any California school districts are limiting instruction so as to not violate IDEA. Tony Thurmond has instructed schools that they are not to be grading any distance-learning lessons, and most California districts aren't even providing a level of "optional" lessons that come anywhere close to covering the common core standards for each grade level. California has essentially abandoned the rest of this school year, CDE has left local districts … Read More

    Carolyn, it is not unknown if any California school districts are limiting instruction so as to not violate IDEA. Tony Thurmond has instructed schools that they are not to be grading any distance-learning lessons, and most California districts aren’t even providing a level of “optional” lessons that come anywhere close to covering the common core standards for each grade level. California has essentially abandoned the rest of this school year, CDE has left local districts to figure it out on their own, and districts are just trying to engage kids with enough brain activity to keep learning-loss from setting kids back a whole year or more.

  9. CA Teacher 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    Instead of "waiving" portions of the IDEA, can't the Feds enact a "hold harmless" clause for the duration of the pandemic? Something that would allow districts to offer whatever SPED services they're capable of providing while students are at home. Each school district has varying abilities depending on size and location. Parents should not be allowed to file lawsuits – this is an unprecedented event. Read More

    Instead of “waiving” portions of the IDEA, can’t the Feds enact a “hold harmless” clause for the duration of the pandemic? Something that would allow districts to offer whatever SPED services they’re capable of providing while students are at home. Each school district has varying abilities depending on size and location. Parents should not be allowed to file lawsuits – this is an unprecedented event.

  10. Paul Ellsworth 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    These are special circumstances and allowance has to be made. This is a limited duration event and you are being an alarmist by so saying it will forever weaken special education. A year from now everything will be back to the way it was.

    Replies

    • Jess 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

      Sure it will…….

  11. Kathy McDonell 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    This is appalling. How dare McConnell blame Democrats for adding riders to the bill when he puts this shameful bill forward! I just contributed to his opponent and urge anyone who cares for kids to do the same!

  12. Linda Pearl 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    Our children are our future.

  13. Anthony Carbone 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    I am a special education teacher in Memphis, TN. I love my students and my comment is that as teachers and individuals we need to pull together at this time of need for families and more than anything need to provide all students with the opportunity to learn. Special Education will take a little work but it can be done. Teachers and parents need to do whatever it takes to collaborate and pull together.

  14. Pooja 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    I agree with Carolyn Jones that shifting of classes online, many students with disabilities are losing access to services that can only be provided in person, such as occupational and physical therapy. This sudden change in the scenario due to the adverse effect of the Corona Virus has harmed the learning of disabled students. I hope this issue is rectified as early as possible.

  15. Debra 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    Make it is a temporary measure that will eliminate the possibility of lawsuits! Make sure special education is ensured when schools are open!

  16. Priscilla Estes 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    As a parent of a student with disabilities this bill should not be passed. I agree that there should be ways in which our kids are served. Not rolled out on. This will be interesting in Clayton County GA when many of our kids are taught collaborative with teachers who have less than 8 hours of training.

    Replies

    • Carolyn Jones 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

      Hi Priscilla, Thanks for your comment. I'd love to hear about your experiences as a special ed parent during the school closures. If you have a moment, please email me at cjones@edsource.org. Thank you! Read More

      Hi Priscilla,
      Thanks for your comment. I’d love to hear about your experiences as a special ed parent during the school closures. If you have a moment, please email me at cjones@edsource.org. Thank you!