One of the biggest challenges for school districts across the country that are delivering distance learning to millions of students at home because of the covid-19 crisis is providing legally required services to students with disabilities.

Under the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, school districts must offer all students an equitable education or they are not supposed to offer it to any of them. Not many school systems have come up with a way to extend online learning and other critical services to the 7 million children with disabilities across the country. And some districts, because they cannot provide special education services at home, aren’t offering online instruction to any student.

Now, there is tension between groups that advocate for these students — who each have an Individualized Education Program or IEP — and organizations that represent special education administrators. The advocates are demanding that school districts deliver education equitably, as the law requires, while administrators say they cannot do the same things they did when schools were open and need some flexibility.

Two groups of administrators — the Council of Administrators of Special Education and the National Association of State Directors of Special Education — jointly sent a letter to Congress asking for flexibility on IDEA timelines, such as when districts must respond to legal complaints or review a student’s IEP.

The letter (seen in full below) says in part:

Local education agencies (LEAs) are facing a great deal of compliance challenges which are taking our focus from educating children with disabilities and shifting focusing our effort on paperwork. Without flexibility, we will generate endless cycles of reporting about how COVID-19 caused money to be unspent, evaluations to be delayed, and services and supports that are in IEPs that are not able to be implemented. We are concerned about requesting numerous meetings and activities of families who are already experiencing many stresses and challenges. For this reason, we are asking for temporary and targeted flexibilities in implementing IDEA during this pandemic so that we can keep our focus on collaborating with parents and families and on providing appropriate services to students with disabilities. In no other situation in our organizations’ history can we find a time where we have asked for limited flexibilities in implementing the IDEA.

Advocates said they disagree.

The Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (CCD) and the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA) wrote letters (see below) to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos about special waivers from federal law regarding the education of students with disabilities.

Congress, in its recent $2 trillion economic stimulus package, known as the Cares Act, included a requirement that DeVos report back by late April on whether she needs congressional approval to provide school districts with waivers to IDEA during the pandemic. DeVos has not said publicly whether she will seek new congressional authority to provide waivers from IDEA to districts.

She did not provide clarity in a recent interview with conservative radio host Lars Larson. He told her many people found it “disturbing” that some places were not giving distance education to any student because they couldn’t provide all necessary services to students with special needs, and then asked: “That can’t be the way we approach this problem, is it?”

DeVos responded: “No, I don’t think that’s the way, and the expectation should be that learning and education can continue for every student. And so for students with disabilities, it’s more a question of how that happens. And it might happen very uniquely for, you know, three, five, seven different students. It might happen differently than it would in a traditional brick-and-mortar setting. But it needs to happen. It’s not a matter of whether it does. It’s a matter of how you can facilitate it in a way that is safe and healthy for both the educator as well as the student. But the expectation should be that all students can and should be able to continue their learning.”

The COPAA letter said, for example:

With the outbreak of COVID-19, COPAA’s position is that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and all of the legal rights for students with disabilities remain in effect notwithstanding the school closures occurring across the country. We believe the same is true for the rights afforded to students under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504).
Therefore, we strongly urge the Secretary to fully uphold all tenets and requirements of the IDEA and Section 504 and resist requests for the authority to waive provisions of either law.

A coalition of groups, including the National Center for Learning Disabilities, the National Urban League and the Alliance for Excellent Education, issued a statement saying DeVos does not need special permission from Congress to make any more waivers. It says in part:

We must also pay particular attention to the needs of students with disabilities and ensure that the most effective instructional support is provided to these students as soon as possible. No new waiver authority is necessary under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Districts must actively plan to ensure that students are afforded all of their rights under federal law. Many are already doing this using online platforms, phone calls, or other innovative measures to provide individual or small group instruction and hold meetings wherever possible.

There was pushback, though, from the AASA, the School Superintendents Association. Its advocacy director, Sasha Pudelski, tweeted:

Here is the letter from the special education administrators’ organizations seeking flexibility from Congress:

Here is the statement from the coalition of organizations advocating for students with disabilities:

And here are the letters from advocates for students with disabilities: