The U.S. Department of Education is reviewing the rights of students with disabilities in the ongoing COVID-19 environment. (Anne Meadows / Flickr)
Given that schools across the country are increasingly looking for a return to normal, federal education officials continue to clarify what this should mean for students with disabilities.
In a 23-page question-and-answer document, the Department of Education outlines how the Disability Education Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and other civil rights laws apply when schools resume learning in person.
The guidelines address the responsibility of schools towards students with disabilities in remote, hybrid, and personal situations, and cover everything from the right to free adequate public education to dealing with children who are unable to wear masks or who are unable to maintain social distance.
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The Education Department said the document is intended to help students, families, schools and the public. It contains information on K-12 schools as well as post-secondary institutions.
In particular, the guidelines suggest that schools can take a student’s disability into account when prioritizing who should be given access to face-to-face learning first. However, government, school district, or school policies that restrict services to people with disabilities without considering the needs of an individual student are not allowed. When schools use cohorts or pods to minimize interactions, “students with disabilities need to be included as much as possible with their non-disabled peers in order to meet their needs,” the education department said.
Students who are unable to wear a mask or physical distance due to their disability should not be disciplined for failing to follow these new safety procedures as per guidelines.
One topic not specifically addressed in the new Q&A document is compensatory education, which is likely to become an increasingly important issue as the consequences of more limited education services for students with disabilities become more apparent during the pandemic.
“The department is aware of important issues related to compensation for students with disabilities and plans to address these in a separate guide,” said the education department.