California’s independent study framework shuts out thousands of disabled students who need special in-person services to learn, according to a civil rights complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Justice.
The class-action complaint alleges that students at high risk of Covid, such as those with immune disorders, weakened lungs or an inability to wear a mask, cannot attend in-person school for safety reasons, yet districts aren’t providing the assistance those students need in order to participate in independent study.
Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the U.S. Department of Education requires schools to provide a “free appropriate public education” to all students, regardless of their abilities. For students with disabilities, that often means extra services, such as speech or behavioral therapy, one-on-one help in class, tutoring in small groups or occupational or physical therapy.
“Some kids are not getting any education at all right now, so this issue is urgent,” said Claudia Center, legal director of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, one of the groups that filed the complaint on behalf of families in late September. “We’ve heard from dozens of families so far who are affected by this, but we think it’s the tip of the iceberg.”
During the early weeks of remote learning in spring 2020, most school districts relied on parents to help their children with remote learning. Teachers, aides and therapists visited students’ homes or students received extra help virtually. In September 2020, the state began encouraging schools to reopen for in-person special education classes because those extra services were so difficult to provide virtually. Within a few months, most students in special education were attending class in person, at least part of the day, even while their non-disabled peers remained at home.
Unlike last year, disabled students who returned to in-person school this fall are often sharing classrooms with large groups of students who might not be vaccinated, potentially posing a serious health risk. For those who chose independent study, the programs vary greatly — some include virtual classes with credentialed teachers, and others offer little more than homework packets. According to the complaint, some students who enrolled in independent study were asked to waive their right to extra services.
The state has not released data on how many students with disabilities are enrolled in independent study, but about 800,000 — or 13% — of California’s K-12 public school students are in special education.
Last week, the U.S. Department of Education reminded school districts that they must comply with special education laws even for students enrolled in independent study.
The complaint, filed last week in the U.S. District Court of Northern California, asks the state to play a stronger role in enforcing special education laws, ensuring that students with disabilities get services they’re entitled to even if they’re enrolled in independent study.
“We hope to resolve this as soon as possible,” Center said. “We’d like to see a robust independent study program be made available to students with disabilities, many of whom are being denied access.”
The California Department of Education had no comment on the lawsuit because staff had not yet seen the complaint. But department spokesman Scott Roark said schools are required to provide independent study to students with disabilities, regardless of the type or severity of the disability, as long as it’s allowed in a student’s individualized education program — the learning road map for students in special education created by teachers and parents.
The state answered 10 frequently asked questions on the topic on Tuesday.
Kirsten Neilsen’s 9-year-old son, Liam, is one of those students who’ve been excluded from independent study this school year.
Born many weeks early at 25 weeks, Liam’s lungs didn’t fully develop properly, and he’s prone to severe respiratory illness. He’s had pneumonia several times, and regular colds tend to linger for weeks. Attending in-person classes during the pandemic “is absolutely not an option,” Neilsen said.
At his school in Long Beach, Liam receives speech therapy and some accommodations in physical education class. Most of the day he’s in a general education classroom. He did well during remote learning because he received speech therapy virtually and had no problems keeping up with classwork, his mother said.
“I thought it would be the same this year,” she said. “But it’s not. … As of today, he has not gotten any school assignments. It’s been extremely frustrating.”
Liam did not qualify for independent study because it wasn’t specified in his individualized education program. The only other option was an alternative program called “home hospital instruction,” which is geared to students with temporary health ailments that prevent them from attending school in person. But Liam didn’t qualify because his condition is chronic, not temporary.
To help Liam keep up academically this fall, Neilsen hired a math tutor and is doing what she can to educate her son. But it’s not enough, she said. She joined the class action complaint as a way to pressure the state and her local district to help students like him.
“I would like Liam and other students like him to have the same opportunities as children who do not have special needs,” she said. “They need to find a way to accommodate these children.”