Students with Disabilities and Distance Learning: Know Your Rights
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a law that makes available a free appropriate public education to eligible children with disabilities throughout the nation and ensures special education and related services to those children.
The IDEA governs how states and public agencies provide early intervention, special education, and related services to more than 6.5 million eligible infants, toddlers, children, and youth with disabilities.
The challenges of the global COVID-19 pandemic are many and have forced school districts across the nation to take necessary steps to not only protect the health and safety of students, but address the academic, and social-emotional needs of its most vulnerable students. While distance learning quickly became the default solution for the more than 54 million students displaced by school closures, it was not the most accessible choice for the nearly 7 million students currently identified as students with disabilities under IDEA.
Recent guidance by the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) and the Department’s Office for Civil Right (OCR) and the Office for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) sought to clarify guidance and information to state and local education agencies on the legal obligations to provide a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) required by IDEA.
Students with Disabilities and Distance Learning: Key Points
- State and local education agencies must ensure compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504), and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act which should not prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction.
- School districts must provide FAPE consistent with the need to protect the health and safety of students with disabilities (SWD) and those providing education, specialized instruction, and related services to students with disabilities. OCR and OSERS does recognize that exceptional circumstances may affect how all educational and related services are provided, therefore USDOE will offer flexibility where possible.
The federal guidance does provide flexibility however, it does not specify methodologies:
- As appropriate, special education and related services can be provided through distance instruction virtually, online, or telephonically;
- Certain services to some students may be provided in-person if feasible and safe;
- Utilization of disability-related modifications – closed captioning, embedded sign-language interpretation, etc.
IEP teams are encouraged to employ virtual platforms to collaborate “creatively” to support students, adding practices such as:
- Online options for data tracking and documentation
- Meetings on digital platforms