45 years ago, on November 29, 1975, the Disability Awareness Act (IDEA) was incorporated into the law. As we celebrate this milestone, students entering special education are faced with a situation never seen in the four and a half decades since the law was signed.
None of the parents, self-advocates and educators who fought for special needs education that day, imagined the challenges of a “free adequate public education” through a pandemic. For the past nine months, the challenges schools faced due to COVID-19 have created uncertainty for families of children across Nevada, especially those with disabilities.
Educators and parents alike are faced with difficult decisions and must weigh the risk of contracting COVID-19 when they return to the school building. A significant number of students with disabilities are at higher risk for COVID. Virtual learning and other social distancing measures, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other experts, must be in place to ensure the safety of students with disabilities and school staff.
The foundation of IDEA is the development of an individual educational program that meets the individual needs of each student. In addition, the Nevada Bylaws and Administrative Act contain standards for special education. School districts across Nevada have implemented their own reopening plans and have taken different approaches for the approximately 63,000 students with disabilities in our state.
Our focus is not on calling for schools to be reopened or for a unified approach. Instead, our focus is on ensuring that students with disabilities receive quality services that meet their educational needs. Ultimately, IDEA is not locked. The school district’s obligation to provide services to students with disabilities has not decreased and remains unchanged.
Last month, the Nevada Department of Education’s Bureau of Inclusive Education created guidelines to assist districts in their IDEA tasks during the pandemic. The guidelines state: “It is indisputable that the mandates of IDEA and (Nevada law) must drive all decisions regarding the provision of free adequate public education to every disabled student in these unprecedented times.”
Unfortunately, our organizations have heard too many stories of lack of access to federally mandated services and support that are listed in each child’s individual education program. School districts need to make sure they abide by the law. Otherwise, students will continue to be denied access to the general curriculum, subject instruction, related services, adaptable equipment, assistive technology, and effective communication support.
As the pandemic will continue for the foreseeable future, our organizations recommend the following:
– Emphasis on creativity and collaboration to ensure compliance and quality support services: When educational services do not work, schools need to ensure that students with disabilities do not face the consequences. When virtual learning is not effective, schools need to be creative and work with parents to meet the individual needs of students. Regular communication between parents, students, and educators is important to address concerns.
– Ensure compensatory services: School districts should take positive action to ensure compensatory education for all students with disabilities. Whether distance learning or hybrid learning, high quality and accessible education is required to receive sufficient direct tuition. Under IDEA, children with disabilities are entitled to compensation to make up for any deficiencies in the provision of adequate education.
– Protection of civil rights and access to dispute settlement mechanisms: The civil rights of students with disabilities and their families remain intact. Schools must continue to respect these rights and provide related services, instruction and accommodation. The options under IDEA to resolve disputes also remain – mediation, state grievance, and grievance procedures should be accessible to parents.
– Improving Policies Regarding Workload, Homework Submission, and Attendance: The transition to virtual and hybrid learning has been an incredible challenge for families and students. In the past nine months, students have often been punished for circumstances beyond their control. Guidelines tailored to support students during this time will improve overall performance and reduce stress.
– Use Compassion: After all, a compassionate approach can lead to meaningful educational outcomes. Given the significant impact of a pandemic that has left far too many casualties and put some of the most vulnerable in our community at risk, it is imperative for students and educators to exercise compassion.
Ultimately, if we can work together as a team and as a community at the end of each school day, our students will continue to receive high quality education and remain protected from the virus.
– Karen Taycher is the executive director of Nevada PEP; Tamika Shauntee is the Legal Representation Coordinator for the ACLU of Nevada. This essay was also signed by Jack Mayes, executive director of the Nevada Disability Advocacy and Law Center, and Alex Cherup, attorney with Nevada Legal Services.
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