U.S. DOE issues new fact sheet on special education


By Pilar Sokol
Deputy General Counsel

How can school districts provide services to children with disabilities while schools are closed? The U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) has issued new information on this topic which acknowledges that COVID-19 presents exceptional circumstances that may affect how education, related services and supports are provided to children with disabilities.

Despite the difficult circumstances, districts still must comply with federal laws that protect students with disabilities, according to USDOE. Nor should they deny distance instruction to general education students by claiming an inability to comply with such laws.

According to a document issued Saturday entitled, "Supplemental Fact Sheet: Addressing the Risk of COVID-19 in Preschool, Elementary and Secondary Schools While Serving Children with Disabilities":

  • Schools must provide a free appropriate education (FAPE) to children with disabilities consistent with the need to protect their health and safety as well as that of those who provide such services.

  • FAPE may include special education and related services provided through distance instruction provided virtually, on-line or telephonically, as appropriate.

  • Issues related to any inevitable delay in the provision of services, or to decisions regarding how to provide services, will be resolved through individualized determinations pertaining to the need for compensatory services once a school resumes normal operations.

During school closures, it may be unfeasible or unsafe to provide hands-on physical and/or occupational therapy and tactile sign language education services. But districts can still provide modifications and accommodations such as:

  • Extensions of time for assignments.

  • Videos with accurate captioning or embedded sign language interpreting.

  • "Accessible" reading materials.

  • Various speech language services through videoconferencing.
While online learning must be accessible to students with disabilities, federal law does not mandate the use of a specific methodology. Therefore, if technology is not accessible or education materials are not available in accessible format, schools may still meet their legal obligations by providing equally effective alternate access to the curriculum or services provided to other students.

For instance, a teacher may be unable to provide a blind student with a braille version of a class assignment. The teacher could, instead, provide an audio recording or read the document to the blind student over the phone.

Tele-therapy and tele-intervention meetings held on digital platforms can also be considered, as appropriate.

Also, schools should consider low technology strategies for the exchange of curriculum-based resources, instructional packets, projects and written assignments, according to the Supplemental Fact Sheet.

More information is available from USDOE’s Office for Civil Rights.


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