Feds Flag Districts’ Failures to Serve Students With Disabilities. But That’s Only the Start

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Virginia’s largest school district failed students with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic, federal investigators announced this week.

Advocates for students with disabilities called the findings further confirmation that school systems around the country need to do more to address the effects of unprecedented widespread interruptions on the progress of vulnerable students and a sign that federal officials are taking notice.

Fairfax County schools failed to meet the requirements of students’ individualized education programs and disability accommodations plans during school closures, and it failed to remedy those lapses with adequate compensatory services, concluded a federal resolution agreement released Nov. 30.

In the agreement with the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights, the 178,000-student district agreed to convene meetings to review each individual student’s IEP or plan under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to identify gaps in services and to make plans to address them moving forward. The district will also conduct outreach to parents and guardians of students with disabilities to make them aware of their rights under federal laws.

“I am relieved that the more than 25,000 students with disabilities in Fairfax County will now receive services federal law promises to them, even during a pandemic, to ensure their equal access to education,” said a statement from Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education.

The agreement is the second of its kind since widespread school shutdowns in March 2020 interrupted classroom learning and the delivery of required therapies and services for millions of students with disabilities. Parents complained that students weren’t receiving needed physical and occupational therapy services at home, that speech pathology appointments were far less effective on a computer screen, and that online learning systems sometimes lacked the accommodations necessary to adapt to learning disabilities related to issues like linguistic processing.

In April, the office for civil rights made a similar agreement with the Los Angeles Unified School District, which advocates flagged as a harbinger of a much larger concern nationwide. They echoed those statements after reading the Fairfax County resolution.

“It wasn’t just students in Fairfax County Public Schools who weren’t getting the services they have a right to,” said Lindsay Kubatzky, director of policy and advocacy for the National Center for Learning Disabilities. “It shouldn’t take legal action for students to get support.”

“We hope that this resolution will push other school districts to acknowledge the impact the pandemic has had on students, particularly those with disabilities, and focus efforts on providing the supports and services for those students,” he continued.

Neglected needs of students with disabilities

Under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, schools must reevaluate the needs of students with disabilities and regularly update plans to provide accommodations, like adaptive software to help with reading on a computer screen, and developmental services, such as occupational and speech therapy.

Federal courts have held that schools must provide compensatory services to students if they encounter interruptions, like natural disasters or shortages of specialized staff, that impede delivery of those services and supports. Those compensatory education plans must address how schools will help students return to the level of progress they would have reached had a lapse never occurred by providing extra therapies, tutoring, and other supports.

But many schools have failed to evaluate if students need such recovery services, even after repeated urgings by the U.S. Department of Education to do so, advocates said.

What investigators found in Fairfax County:

  • The school system failed to provide a legally required free and appropriate public education to thousands of students with disabilities during the pandemic.
  • Administrators supplemented students’ IEPs with “temporary learning plans” providing fewer services without proper evaluations.
  • The district did not adequately track what special education services students received.
  • An internal district analysis “found that the percentage of students with disabilities in middle and high school who failed two or more classes
    in the first quarter of the 2020-2021 school year (19 percent) more than doubled from the same time a year before.”
  • Internal correspondence shows administrators didn’t believe they owed students compensatory services because it wasn’t their fault that schools had to close.

Under a voluntary resolution agreement, Fairfax schools agreed to designate an administrator to oversee its new compensatory services plan, to convene IEP and 504 teams to review students’ needs, to report back to federal officials on progress, and to train staff about meeting the requirements of federal laws.
“As we emerge from the global pandemic, FCPS remains committed to working diligently to provide the support needed to ensure each and every student recovers from learning loss,” the district said in a statement. “FCPS has and will continue to leverage resources to ensure students with the greatest need receive prioritized support for enhanced outcomes.”

Parents push school districts to act

Since the pandemic’s beginning, school district administrators have said staffing shortages, expenses, and logistical hurdles made it difficult to comply with IEPs and 504 plans. Early on, some pushed then U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to waive some requirements of the IDEA, which she opted not to do.

Like Fairfax County, too many districts have waited for parents to request compensatory services after schools reopened, rather than ensuring all special education students are evaluated, advocates have said.

In light of such concerns, New Jersey lawmakers passed a bill in Marchthat extended the timeline for requesting such services and required all schools to review students’ learning plans by the end of the calendar year, whether or not they have a specific request from parents.

The National Center for Parent Leadership, Advocacy, and Community Empowerment, which involves parents in advocacy and policy discussions, has urged parent groups around the country to push their school districts to publicize compensatory education options and to make comprehensive plans to provide them, said Diana Autin, the organization’s executive director.

If they fail to do so, parents should file federal complaints to spark resolutions like those in Fairfax County and Los Angeles, she said.

The agreement is “a welcome sign that the Department is taking seriously the widespread need for compensatory services for students with disabilities who were denied a free, appropriate public education during the pandemic,” Autin said.

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