WASHINGTON—U.S. Senators Bill Cassidy, M.D. (R-LA) and Chris Murphy (D-CT.), both members of the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee, on Tuesday released bipartisan principles to support students with disabilities to ensure they receive full and equitable educational services throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. They included these principles in a letter to U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to ask for clear guidance to protect the needs of students with disabilities during and following nationwide school closures.
“Special education children need more resources to adapt to a distance learning environment. School systems must be equipped to provide these resources for those who do not otherwise have them,” said Dr. Cassidy.
“Our education system is grappling with the transition to distance learning due to COVID-19, but now is not the time to backtrack on our commitment to provide a quality education to all students with disabilities. Instead, this is a moment where Congress needs to provide additional guidance and resources to schools to make sure that they comply with federal disability education laws despite the circumstances,” said Murphy. “These principles, which should form the basis of legislation in the next COVID relief package, acknowledge that states and school districts will need some flexibility regarding timelines during this crisis. But our principles also underscore the need to maintain the core protections of IDEA and the need for Congress to provide specific funding to support students with disabilities, and we hope Congress will include these resources in the next relief bill.”
In the bipartisan principles, Cassidy and Murphy called on the need (1) to preserve the right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) for students with disabilities throughout closures and support creative remedies to lost learning once schools reopen; (2) to keep additional flexibilities granted in timeline requirements under federal law narrow, targeted, and temporary, while maintaining other requirements to provide FAPE, to engage parents in the process, and to ensure due process to parents; (3) to maintain congressional and U.S. Department of Education oversight and accountability related to the progress of students with disabilities; (4) for the U.S. Department of Education to communicate current flexibilities in a clear and timely manner through guidance and to more actively support states and school districts through robust technical assistance; and (5) for Congress to provide supplemental funding to states and districts so they can maintain learning for students with disabilities and provide additional services once schools reopen. The senators cited requests from schools and advocates for at least $10 billion allocated for IDEA to help schools meet the law’s requirements during and immediately following the period of school closures.
Bipartisan Principles for Supporting Students with Disabilities During the COVID-19 National Emergency
The following are bipartisan principles introduced by Senators Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) that are essential to ensuring the full and equitable provision of educational services to students with disabilities and maintaining rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) throughout the COVID-19 National Emergency.
Principle 1: Preserve Free Appropriate Public Education
We must preserve the right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), through providing essential and equitable services to students with disabilities throughout closures and through creative remedies to lost learning once schools reopen. No set of circumstances is too big to justify breaking this fundamental promise to students and families.
Principle 2: Engage Parents, Ensure Due Process
We believe that, while some extension and flexibility in timelines is warranted, other requirements to provide FAPE, to engage parents in the process, and to ensure due process rights to parents should remain. Any IDEA timeline flexibilities granted to states and districts must be narrow, targeted, and temporary. Now is not the time to renege on our commitment and responsibility to support students with disabilities and protect their rights by granting broad waivers.
Principle 3: Maintain Oversight and Accountability
Congress and the Department of Education must maintain oversight and accountability functions related to the progress of students with disabilities. Even during this exceptional crisis, the legislative and executive branches must work together to make sure that schools continue to meet their obligations to serve all students to the best of their ability and to include parents fully in decisions about their child’s education.
Principle 4: Communicate Current Flexibilities Clearly and Provide Assistance
Where current flexibilities exist, the Education Department must communicate them in a clear and timely manner through guidance and providing robust technical assistance, while speaking clearly to specific concerns. States and districts need certainty regarding the extent of the flexibility and their obligations during this time so there is no fear of losing federal funding, while parents need certainty that their children will continue to receive the services they are entitled to under law.
Principle 5: Provide Funding to States and School Districts
Congress must provide necessary supplemental funding to states and school districts so that they can maintain learning for students with disabilities as well as provide additional services when schools reopen. We note that advocates for students with disabilities have recommended Congress appropriate $10 billion to help schools meet IDEA requirements during and immediately following the period of school closures. Resources should be targeted toward ensuring students can fully access distance learning and virtual services that replicate students’ accommodations to the extent possible, in addition to supporting the school personnel necessary to provide an equitable education for students. Further, resources should support the planning and implementation of innovative strategies to get students with disabilities back on track when schools reopen.
Dear Secretary DeVos:
We write to you regarding the need for clear guidance to protect the needs of students with disabilities during and following nationwide school closures. It is essential that the rights of students with disabilities be upheld throughout this crisis. At the same time, we recognize that unique, temporary circumstances may limit the provision of services that would normally be available in a traditional school setting. At the extreme, we have heard of at some school districts that are not providing educational services to any students because they struggle to provide some services for all.
The question we must answer with clarity is, “how can school districts adjust to distance learning, while remaining in compliance with federal disability education laws?” To this end, we believe that Congress and the Department should act now to provide the conditions necessary for schools and families to navigate ongoing closures as well as get back on track when schools reopen.
Understanding the potential need for certain, temporary flexibilities, Congress included a requirement in the CARES Act that the Department prepare a report detailing any recommended waivers to requirements under federal education laws during the COVID-19 National Emergency. While this crisis has fundamentally changed how we must think about the provision of education, it is critical that we remain steadfast in our commitment to all children – especially those with disabilities. To this effort, Congress and the Department must maintain their roles in ensuring accountability and oversight regarding the progress of students with disabilities.
We believe any potential flexibilities included in the report concerning the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) must be narrow, targeted, temporary, and dedicated to the full provision of educational services for every student with a disability that is reasonably possible. While some extension and flexibility in timelines is warranted, requirements to provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE), to engage parents in the process, and to ensure due process rights to parents must remain. We do not believe this requires broad flexibilities that would temporarily rollback rights for these students and their families. No matter the circumstance, we believe these core rights of IDEA must be upheld and reinforced.
We, in Congress, must also commit to providing schools with the funding necessary to carry out the requirements of IDEA through closures and once schools reopen. As the Department considers any recommendations to Congress for additional flexibility with regards to IDEA, please know that we are committed to seeking necessary, targeted supplemental funding for IDEA in the next Coronavirus stimulus package. Doing so will ensure that the needs of districts and students are met despite a potentially unstable funding base at the same time they are asked to invest in and acclimate to new systems.
Included with this letter are bipartisan principles we believe both Congress and the Department must consider to ensure students with disabilities receive equitable services and opportunities during the COVID-19 National Emergency. Should you have any specific questions, please let us know.