Cardona urges schools to consider students with disabilities when lifting COVID-19 mandates | Education News

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Education Secretary Miguel Cardona reminded states and local school districts that they must ensure that students with disabilities who are at higher risk of serious COVID-19 infections can continue to attend school. school safe, even as schools drop masking and testing mandates following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s updated guidelines for K-12 schools.

“The Department recognizes the challenges that many families have faced as they struggle to

balance the need for their child’s physical safety with their child’s need for in-person learning,” Cardona wrote in a letter Thursday to headteachers and parents. “As we enter this next phase of pandemic response, we urge schools to lead with equity and inclusion to ensure all students have access to in-person learning alongside their peers.”

The eight-page letter comes as schools across the country relax and, in many cases, entirely dismantle the layered risk mitigation strategies they had in place to prevent coronavirus transmission, including more than 90% of the nation’s 500 largest school districts that are now hidden.

But parents and guardians of students with disabilities are crying foul alongside advocacy and civil rights groups who argue that the rollback of safety measures threatens the ability of some children to continue learning in person – which makes further set back a group of students who have suffered some of the most acute academic, social and emotional loss.

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Under federal law, states and local school districts must ensure that students with disabilities maintain equal access to in-person instruction and receive what is called “free appropriate public education” in the environment. the least restrictive possible. And under federal civil rights laws, this must be done so that students with disabilities are not put at risk to their school-related health needs.

In the letter, Cardona emphasized that “school districts must make reasonable modifications as necessary to provide equal access to their students with disabilities.” Additionally, the secretary wrote, if a parent or member of the student’s educational planning team feels that particular COVID-19 prevention strategies are necessary to meet the federal standard of providing free and appropriate public education, they must then be described in the individual education of the child. plan and act.

State or local laws, rules, regulations, or policies that have the effect of “inappropriately limiting” the ability of a student’s education planning team to meet school-related health needs, he warned, are in violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act – the federal law that requires schools to meet the health needs of eligible students with disabilities who are at increased risk of serious illness from COVID- 19.

“Schools must continue to take steps to preserve safe in-person learning opportunities for

students with disabilities, including those at high risk for serious consequences from COVID-19,” Cardona wrote.

The secretary also cautioned schools against placing all students with disabilities in a separate setting from students without disabilities, because federal law assumes that all students with disabilities should be educated alongside their peers.

“School districts, schools, childcare centers and homes, and classrooms may still choose to implement masking requirements at any COVID-19 community level based on their

the needs of the community – and especially keeping in mind those for whom these prevention strategies provide essential protection for in-person learning,” Cardona wrote. “Implementing tiered prevention strategies (using multiple prevention strategies together) in schools can protect the rights of students with disabilities by ensuring their continued access to safe in-person learning.”

The CDC has long recognized that COVID-19 poses an increased risk of serious complications

to children with disabilities – including those who are immunocompromised or have complex health conditions, and have consistently stressed that they may need additional safeguards to keep them safe in the classroom.

Some of the ways the CDC has suggested schools continue to protect students with disabilities, which Cardona echoed in his letter, include making sure all eligible adults and students at school are immunized, maintaining masking and testing requirements, updating ventilation systems, establishing handwashing protocols and creating smaller class sizes.

Yet those recommendations clash with his most important message that more than 99% of Americans live in counties with “low” or “medium” coronavirus community levels and can stop wearing masks indoors, including school teachers and students.

Nearly 7 million children in the United States receive special education services – approximately 15% of all K-12 students. Many of these services came to a screeching halt when schools closed at the start of the pandemic.

A 2020 survey of parents of children enrolled in special education services showed that just 20% said their child received all the support the school was legally required to provide. Another 39% said their child had not received any services. As recently as June 2021, a federal report documented schools continue to struggle serving students with disabilities.

For some families, the services they relied on did not return until the start of the current school year, which many say devastated their development.

A November 2021 investigation by the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates found that 86% of parents reported that their child had experienced learning loss, regression in skills, or slower-than-expected academic progress. And although the survey was carried out when virtually all schools were offering in-person instruction, it showed that only 18% of parents said their child had received extra support to regain ground lost during the pandemic and 14 % thought school districts’ decisions about who got this extra help were unfair.

Many are now seeking so-called “compensatory services” to force schools to compensate for failing to meet their obligations to students with disabilities over the past two years, with a growing number of families arguing to argue that the schools are legally obligated to close the academic, social and emotional gaps created by remote learning and the loss of access to special courses, such as speech therapy, occupational therapy and physical therapy.

While Cardona’s letter to school leaders and parents doesn’t change the status quo, it is a not-so-subtle reminder to states and school districts of their federal obligations toward students with disabilities.

“Students learn best in person and all children with disabilities should continue to receive [free and appropriate education] and must be given the chance to achieve ambitious goals,” he wrote. “As we learn to safely engage with our communities and navigate the current state of the pandemic, the Department will continue to provide guidance and resources to school communities to ensure we support the ability of students with disabilities to learn in person.”

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