New Coronavirus Package Could Unravel Protections For Students With Disabilities

Advocates of children with special needs are sounding the alarm on Senate Republicans’ proposed “Phase 3” coronavirus stimulus package, saying that it may eventually give the government power to absolve schools of at least some of their legal obligation to educate students with disabilities. 

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the federal education law that governs special education, schools are required to provide an equal education for students with disabilities. Under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, federally funded programs are prohibited from discriminating based on disability. 

However, the new Senate package, which still has to be passed by Congress, says Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos can soon tell Congress whether or not she thinks schools should be temporarily exempt from some of these requirements. 

The proposal says that within 30 days of its enactment, DeVos should prepare a report for Senate committees “with recommendations on any additional waivers the Secretary believes are necessary to be enacted into law … to provide limited flexibility to States and local educational agencies to meet the unique needs of students with disabilities.”

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks at a Senate subcommittee hearing.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks at a Senate subcommittee hearing.

Civil rights advocates are calling the provision shameful, saying Republicans are using the complicated crisis as an opportunity to potentially scale back some protections for vulnerable groups. As of the 2017-2018 school year, 7 million students ― or 14% of all children ages 3 to 21 ― received special education services under IDEA, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.  

It’s people using the coronavirus crisis basically to get what they want anyway in terms of weakening civil rights protections for vulnerable children. It’s just sad,” said Miriam Rollin, director of the Education Civil Rights Alliance at the National Center for Youth Law.

Earlier discussions about the legislation went even further, said Liz King, director of Education Policy for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. According to reports she heard of those efforts, states would be given the freedom “to request permission from the secretary to waive their requirements of IDEA,” King said. However, once disability rights advocates and parents got wind of it, they flooded congressional Republicans with complaints. It was soon scaled back. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the earlier discussions.

The current version “suggests that children’s rights are a hindrance to their own education, and that is nonsensical,” said King. “This still continues to be a distraction from their fundamental responsibility to ensure the health, nutritional and educational needs of all children are met during this national crisis.”

A spokeswoman for Betsy DeVos pushed back, saying, “The Department takes seriously its responsibility to protect the rights of all students.”

“We are working to provide schools with the flexibilities they will need to serve students throughout this national emergency,” said Education Department spokesperson Morabito in a statement. 

At least 95,000 public and private schools have shut down in an effort to combat coronavirus, affecting about 44 million students, according to EdWeek. Most schools have continued providing virtual academics, but some have struggled to provide education for students with special needs. Previous guidance from the U.S. Department of Education said that schools are not required to provide IDEA services if they close to stop the spread of COVID-19 and do not provide any services to other students. 

Indeed, some districts have admitted to struggling amid equity concerns. If they don’t serve children with special needs equitably, they run the risk of violating federal law.

“The first things [schools] are thinking of is ‘Are we going to get ourselves in trouble?’” Phyllis Wolfram, the executive director of the Council of Administrators of Special Education, previously told EdWeek. 

But Rollin says potentially exempting schools from civil rights law would send the wrong signal, giving schools cover to do nothing. 

“No one is going to hold schools to the standard of what was happening before [in classrooms]. This is a crisis. People recognize that. But schools can’t just do nothing. They need to do what they can do,” Rollin said.

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