Information about COVID-19 Letter from the U.S. Department of Education—March 12, 2020

In a document distributed on Thursday, March 12, 2020, the U.S. Department of Education addressed issues related to the provision of IEP services when schools are closing. Highlights are as follows:

If the school is closed:

  • If the school is not providing any “educational opportunities” to students in regular education, the school is not required to provide IEP services to students with disabilities.
  • If the school is providing some “educational opportunities” to students in regular education, the school MUST provide “equal access” to those educational opportunities as well as providing FAPE (free appropriate public education) to students with disabilities.
    • If the school determines that it cannot provide such special education services, the school should consider providing compensatory education services to ensure that all students with disabilities receive FAPE (free appropriate public education).

If the school is open:

  • If the student cannot attend school due to coronavirus infection, the determination is the same as with any extended student illness from school (missing more than ten (10) consecutive school days).
    • The school MUST hold an IEP meeting to change the child’s placement to homebound and change services, as needed.
    • If the student does not receive special education services for an extended period of time, the school should consider providing compensatory education services to ensure that all students with disabilities receive FAPE (free appropriate public education).
  • If the student cannot attend school due to a “high risk of severe medical complications,” the determination is the same as for actual student illness. If the student must stay away from school for an extended period of time (more than ten (10) consecutive school days):
    • The school MUST hold an IEP meeting to change the child’s placement to homebound and change services, as needed.
    • If the student does not receive special education services for an extended period of time, the school should consider providing compensatory education services to ensure that all students with disabilities receive FAPE (free appropriate public education).
    • PLEASE NOTE, however, that, pursuant to Section 504, the student may be excluded from school only if such exclusion is medically necessary. “The decision to dismiss a child based on his or her high risk for medical complications must be based on the individual needs of the child and not on perceptions of the child’s needs based merely on stereotypes or generalizations regarding his or her disability.”

You may access the entire document at:

Office of Civil Rights: Schools Must Not Violate Civil Rights When Responding to COVID-19 Concerns

March 17, 2020 OCR Press Release

On March 17, 2020, the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education issued a press release regarding online learning in the COVID-19 environment. OCR is the agency that enforces Civil Rights laws, including Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

In this March 17, 2020 press release, OCR, “reminds decisionmakers of their responsibility in making distance learning accessible to students with disabilities, unless equally effective alternate access is provided. Online learning tools must be accessible to students with disabilities, and they must be compatible with the various forms of assistive technology that students might use to help them learn.” Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights Kenneth L. Marcus also advised, “Students with disabilities must have access to educational technology utilized by schools, and OCR will continue to work to ensure that no student is excluded from utilizing these important tools.”

March 16, 2020 OCR Fact Sheet

The press release references a Fact Sheet (issued on March 16, 2020). In this fact sheet, the Office of Civil Rights recognizes that discrimination on the basis of disability (or race, color, or national origin) remains illegal discrimination—even in times of emergency. OCR further notes “Compliance with CDC’s recommendations should not create civil rights concerns.” The fact sheet also repeats the guidance issued on March 12, 2020 regarding school’s obligations to students with disabilities during this time which is outlined in this BEAR document (–Letter%20from%20DOE%20of%2003-12-2020.docx?dl=0).

March 17, 2020 OCR Webinar

The press release also contains a link to a short webinar available on YouTube. In this webinar, OCR outlines the information set forth above and notes, “Anyone who believes that a recipient or educational institution has violated a federal civil rights law enforced by OCR can file a complaint at” OCR has made it patently clear that there are no excuses—none—for public schools that choose to provide educational opportunities for non-disabled students.

What Does This Mean?

No excuses

The Office of Civil Rights, the agency that enforces civil rights laws, including Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), has unequivocally dismissed the idea that schools are exempt from these laws during the COVID-19 Pandemic. There are no excuses.

It is telling that OCR reiterated the March 12, 2020 guidance issued by the U.S. Department of Education, “If a school district closes its schools and does not provide any educational services to the general student population, then a school would not be required to provide services to students with disabilities during that same period of time.” OCR has given  an “out” to schools that do not choose to make online learning accessible; that “out” is not providing distance education for any student. At the same time, OCR is forcefully reminding schools that, if they choose to provide online education to non-disabled students, they must ensure that students with disabilities have accessible means to effectively perform the same tasks.

Timelines for IEPs and Evaluations

Additionally, in its Fact Sheet, OCR references timelines for IEP meetings and evaluations.

IEP Meetings

OCR recognizes that IEP meetings need not be held in person, and it says nothing about schools getting 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.


OCR recognizes that some evaluations must involve “face-to-face assessment or observation” and that delaying these evaluations until schools reopen is valid. However, OCR 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.

When is Face-to-face required?

In order to assert that face-to-face assessment or observation is required for an evaluation, the school should NOT rely solely on past practices. After all, in most cases, all past instruction has taken place in a face-to-face environment. Assessments do not necessarily have to occur face-to-face now just because have been performed face-to-face in the past. Again, this will be a fact-intensive inquiry. However, schools using online learning platforms would need to describe why those would not work for the assessments needed. Parents and educators can help schools by recommending accessible online platforms like Zoom ( and learning which assessments truly require face-to-face meetings and which may be performed via distance.

Next Steps

Many parents and educators face school officials who are either uninformed about the law’s requirements or unconcerned about the law. Parents and educators may:

  1. Share these legal updates with schools (educators, administrators, etc.). If they don’t have the information, it is hard for them to act upon it. Help provide them the information they need.
  2. Be open and willing to negotiate. Yes, the law is clear. Unfortunately, laws take time (and, often, money) to enforce. Working together toward a common goal (like education), we can accomplish great things.
  3. Consider filing an OCR complaint. As noted above, OCR has explicitly welcomed complaints regarding these matters. Relevant links are found below.
  4. Consider completing the NFB’s Education Technology Survey: “The National Federation of the Blind is gathering information regarding the accessibility of educational technology used in our nation’s schools (kindergarten through graduate level). If you are a student, parent, teacher, or administrator who uses screen access software or other accommodations to participate nonvisually in educational programs or services, or if you are the parent, teacher, or administrator of someone who does, please complete this survey once a semester and contribute to this important research.” at

Important links:

Can the Magic Word “Optional” Relieve Schools of Their Duties to Students with Disabilities In Providing Out-of-school Materials and Activities?

Legal Requirements of Schools With Regard to Students with Disabilities

IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act—the law that provides for IEPs—Individualized Education Plans)

          The IDEA sets forth requirements relating to developing and implementing IEPs. As a preliminary matter, schools are responsible for following the student’s IEP. The student’s IEP should have been developed with the purpose of providing the student FAPE (free appropriate public education).

          When unforeseen circumstances occur (such as the current COVID-19 pandemic), the school might not be able to follow the IEP as it is written. For example, suppose the IEP requires the school to provide a student a quiet place to relieve anxiety from being in a classroom of peers. If the school is closed, this provision will not be relevant if the student is not in a classroom of peers. In contrast, suppose an IEP requires the school to provide materials in Braille. Even if the school is closed, this provision is not necessarily irrelevant. If the school provides materials to non-disabled children, the Braille reading student would require all materials provided in Braille in order to receive FAPE.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act

          A school’s duty to students with disabilities is not limited to the IDEA. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act also provides protections for students with disabilities. In fact, Section 504 protections are available to, “any person who (i) has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities, (ii) has a record of such an impairment, or (iii) is regarded as having such an impairment” 34 C.F.R. section 104.3(j). Most, if not all, students with IEPs will also be eligible for Section 504 protections.

          Section 504 prohibits any eligible individual from being “excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or otherwise be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity which receives Federal financial assistance” 34 C.F.R. section 104.4(a). Note that this does not require the “program or activity” to be educational in nature. Discrimination against disabled individuals is the key question—not whether the discrimination involves educational or non-educational activities.

FAPE—Free Appropriate Public Education

          Section 504 explicitly requires every “public elementary or secondary education program (that receives any Federal financial assistance) or activity shall provide a free appropriate public education to each qualified [disabled] person who is in the recipient’s jurisdiction, regardless of the nature or severity of the person’s [disabled]” 34 C.F.R. section 104.33(a). Moreover, the law explicitly directs that, “the provision of an appropriate education is the provision of regular or special education and related aids and services that (i) are designed to meet individual educational needs of [disabled] persons as adequately as the needs of non [disabled] persons are met” 34 C.F.R. section 104.33(b)(1)(i). In other words, the materials must be accessible and appropriate for the student with a disability.

Nonacademic and extracurricular services and activities

          As noted above, students are protected from discrimination in academic and non-academic activities and services. Section 504 provides that programs receiving federal financial assistance (like public schools) “ shall ensure that [disabled] persons participate with non[disabled] persons in such activities and services to the maximum extent appropriate to the needs of the [disabled] person in question” 34 C.F.R. section 104.34(b). Thus, it is irrelevant if the activity or service is educational or not.

Americans with Disabilities Act

          Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) also provides individuals with disabilities protection from discrimination by state and local governments (including public schools). The definition of disability under the ADA is substantially the same as under Section 504. However, the ADA has no provision for FAPE (free appropriate public education). While this may seem to limit the ADA rights of students with disabilities, it actually does not. In some instances, the ADA rights of a student with a disability actually exceed the student’s rights under IDEA and Section 504. In this document, those additional rights are explored in the next section.

Legal Requirements of Schools With Regard to Blind/Low Vision, Deaf/Hard of Hearing, Deaf-blind, and Non-verbal Students as well as to Students with Speech-related Disabilities Pursuant to Section 504 and the ADA

          In a joint letter on November 12, 2014, with accompanying frequently asked questions and a short fact sheet, the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education addressed the effective communication needs of students for whom typical oral and/or written language is not as effective as they are for non-disabled students. This letter sets forth the legal analysis needed for schools to determine whether their actions comply with federal law.

          In the area of effective communication, federal regulations (both Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, ADA) require schools to provide auxiliary aids and services to ensure that all communication for students with the above-referenced disabilities students are as effective as for non-disabled students. While both the agencies and federal courts acknowledge that IDEA compliance might satisfy effective communication needs, they also recognize that compliance with an IEP does not necessarily mean that a student’s ADA right to effective communication has been met.

          Examples of “effective communication” include, but are not limited to the following: Braille, Nemeth Code (Braille math), Music Braille, screen reader-accessible electronic documents, enlarged print, sign language interpretation, computer-aided transcription services (CART), assistive listening systems, captioning, audio description, tactile graphics, screen reader software, computers, magnification devices, etc. Please note that the ADA directs public entities (including schools) that they must “give primary consideration to the requests of individuals with disabilities” when determining “what types of auxiliary aids and services are necessary” and highlights that, “In order to be effective, auxiliary aids and services must be provided in accessible formats, in a timely manner, and in such a way as to protect the privacy and independence of the individual with a disability” 28 C.F.R. § 35.160(b)(2). Thus, schools must take the effective communication accessibility preferences of a disabled student into account and cannot simply force its own preference upon any student with a disability.

Some Schools are Attempting to By-pass the Clear Language of the March 12, 2020 Letter from the U.S. Department of Education

“Optional” activities provided by the school

          Some schools are distributing (via electronic or hard copy print) worksheets, reading comprehension activities, other lessons to their students. Many of these schools take the position that the distribution of “optional” activities to their students does not trigger any duty to make these activities accessible to students with disabilities. Given the laws governing public schools (IDEA, Section 504, and ADA) and many private schools as well, are the schools correct in this claim?

          So long as the school receives federal financial aid, the answer seems to be a clear, “No.” Schools receiving federal financial aid may not “[d]eny a qualified [disabled] person the opportunity to participate in or benefit from the aid, benefit, or service,” and they may not “[p]rovide a qualified [disabled] person with an aid, benefit, or service that is not as effective as that provided to others” 34 C.F.R. section 104.4(b)(i) and (iii). Section 504 does not allow schools to avoid their legal obligations by labeling an activity or service “optional.”

Given that it is almost certain that the programs compiling and distributing these “optional activities” receive federal financial aid, it is equally clear that they may not discriminate against disabled students by refusing to provide them accessible versions of the worksheets, websites, etc. being provided to non-disabled students.

Schools sending families lists of outside providers for education/learning enrichment activities

Some schools are sending families lists of free online educational activities they might choose to use. Are these lists acceptable under federal law?

This question is not as clear. It can certainly be argued that the school is just providing information to families. However, if the outside resources the school is providing are inaccessible to individuals with disabilities, these lists still may violate Section 504. Section 504 clearly prohibits schools from “directly or through contractual, licensing, or other arrangements” engaging in discrimination, including providing “a qualified [disabled] person with an aid, benefit, or service that is not as effective as that provided to others” 34 C.F.R. section 104.4(b) and (b)(iii). If the outside resources the school list references are not as effective for students with disabilities as they are for others, it could be argued that the school is violating Section 504 by providing these inaccessible/ineffective resource lists to any students.

We Should Focus On Education—Not On Trying to Find Legal Loopholes

As a parent (of a blind 18-year-old), I am grateful that my child graduated from high school last June. I am also grateful that my child took a gap year. This winter, my child faced several medical issues and has been home with my husband and me through most of the COVID-19 crisis in this country.

As an attorney (licensed in Pennsylvania), I do not mind these legal gymnastics. I love advocating for students with disabilities, and I enjoy delving into the law as part of my advocacy.

As a professional educator (teacher of blind students), I shudder each time I hear of one of these issues. Educators are supposed to educate. We are NOT supposed to figure out how we might “get away” with purposefully refusing to educate some or all of our students.

To all professional educators (teachers, administrators, etc.): I encourage you to re-examine your actions in the past few weeks. Are you focused on the education of all students? Is it permissible to shove some students to the side for the sake of expediency?

I also encourage all educational administrators to review your institution’s legal obligations. It seems that many public schools are focusing on their IDEA responsibilities. The IDEA is certainly important, but so are Section 504 and the ADA. Unless schools make certain to adhere to their legal obligations relating to all three of these federal laws, schools may find themselves in violation of civil rights laws. Not only will these violations rob students with disabilities of necessary accessible educational opportunities, schools may find their budgets depleted by legal fees and, possibly, monetary damages. In education, we need to use our scarce resources to educate students—not to pay attorney’s fees. Let us work together to ensure that ALL students have access to ALL aids, benefits, and services of our federally-funded public schools. It’s not only the right thing to do; it focuses our scarce resources on providing education instead of trying to avoid doing so.