Review of Guidance Issued by the U.S. Department of Education Regarding Students with Disabilities

See related blog: USDOE Causes Confusion as It Seeks to Spur Into Action “Frightened” School District Officials

See related blog: FAPE for Blind/Low Vision Students During School Closures


Since the COVID-19 pandemic gripped our nation, schools have sought guidance regarding education services to students with disabilities during school closures. The U.S. Department of Education has provided several documents and a webinar to guide schools on these matters. Below, please find a summary of the information provided to date.

When must schools provide education to students with disabilities?

According to the U.S. Department of Education, if the school is providing ANY “educational opportunities” to students in regular education, the school MUST provide “equal access” to those educational opportunities and must provide FAPE (free appropriate public education) to students with disabilities.

  • Note: There is disagreement regarding USDOE’s position that schools only have duties to students with disabilities when they provide educational opportunities to non-disabled students. I will not delve into this matter in this document.

What IEP services, accommodations, and modifications (SAMs) must the school provide?

Schools must provide all IEP services, including accommodations and modifications (SAMs), unless they it cannot do so. Schools should work with parents to find ways to deliver IEP SAMs, beginning with methods used before school closure and including methods such as drop off of materials, distance technology, assistive technology at home, etc. These can be incorporated into the current IEP as an amendment for which no formal meeting is held.

If the school and parent cannot agree, the IEP team should meet (via distance technology) to discuss providing IEP SAMs during school closure. Schools failing to provide required IEP SAMs may face liability for compensatory services once school resumes as well as extended school year (ESY) services if social distancing ends before schools reopen.

IEP and Re-evaluation Meetings

These meetings need not be in person, and there are no provisions for timeline extensions due to school closures. These matters will likely be very case-specific, but schools that fail to hold timely IEP meetings during the COVID-19 Pandemic may find themselves out of compliance when schools, enforcement agencies, and courts reopen.

Assessments and Evaluations

Some evaluations must involve “face-to-face assessment or observation” and that delaying these evaluations until schools reopen is valid. However, U.S. Department of Education explicitly directs schools, “Evaluations and re-evaluations that do not require face-to-face assessments or observations may take place while schools are closed, so long as a student’s parent or legal guardian consents.” This guidance is crystal clear.

Examples of assessments that need to be completed in person usually involve assessments of students around other students or in classroom settings (taking into account lighting, noise, etc.). However, reading assessments, technology assessments, mobility assessments, etc. may easily be performed using distance technology tools.

Communication and Collaboration are the Keys to Success

I completely agree with the USDOE’s promotion of collaboration between school officials and families. Undoubtedly, compromises must be made. However, students with disabilities cannot be abandoned by their schools. All parties must focus on what is important: providing FAPE by ensuring meaningful and accessible educational opportunities and individualized tools and instruction for the purpose of preparing students with disabilities for post-secondary education, post-secondary employment, and independent living.

Over the past few weeks, the experiences parents have shared tell the true story:

  • School districts that have been making good faith efforts to educate blind/low vision students before the emergency are proactively finding ways to provide accessible and meaningful educational activities for their blind/low vision students.
  • School districts that were not providing good services before the emergency tend to be the ones that are providing little or no accessible or meaningful educational opportunities for blind/low vision students—often while providing these opportunities to non-disabled students.

Next Steps for Families

I encourage families to take heart. Your children’s rights have not been altered by this emergency. Talk with your school officials. Share with them strategies that will work for your child. Provide them ideas and resources for bringing those ideas to reality.

If these efforts do not work, bide your time. Document everything you ask from and offer to your school district officials. Seek out other resources (including BEAR) for support and enrichment for your child and you. We are here for you, and we will not leave you or your child behind.