School closings and the coronavirus: Legal FAQs

Nearly all schools are closed due to the coronavirus. Working with Lindsay Jones of our partner, the National Center for Learning Disabilities, we made this FAQ to answer legal questions you may have about school closings, discrimination, and more.

Keep in mind that your state laws may differ. Your first place for information is your state department of education and your local school district, as well as the U.S. Department of Education’s coronavirus information page. But these FAQs can give you a good starting point.

Can a public school send a student or teacher home if they have the coronavirus?

Yes. The government (and public schools) have the power to act to keep students and school staff safe. If someone has an illness that’s a direct threat to others, schools may require the person to stay home. They also have the legal power to close down physical buildings and have all kids learn from home.

Can the school share information about a student or staff person having the coronavirus?

Schools can and may be required by law to disclose that coronavirus exposure has occurred. However, they can’t identify the person except in specific situations.

Both students and school staff have the right to confidentiality. Student privacy is protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, as well as other laws. Schools may share identifying information with public health officials in a health or safety emergency, but not with the general public. For detailed answers, look at this coronavirus student privacy guidance from the U.S. Department of Education.

Teachers and school staff also have privacy rights. In general, schools can share that coronavirus exposure has occurred, but they can’t give out identifying information. However, the laws around employees are complex. For more information, look at this guidance from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

When a school closes temporarily for all kids, do kids have the right to instruction at home?

No. Let’s say a school closes because of an emergency and decides that no students will be taught. In that case, all instruction stops.

Because there’s no general education happening, there typically will be no special education either. There may be rare exceptions to this for kids with needs that are critical or time-sensitive.

State laws require that students have a certain number of days of instruction per year. So what’s happening now is that physical school buildings are staying closed, but schools are reopening with kids learning at home. When schools are providing distance learning, they must also provide special education services.

Does a public school have to respond to bullying, harassment, and discrimination?

Yes. Even as they work to keep students safe, schools may not discriminate against kids based on disability, race, color, or national origin. They must also investigate and respond to bullying or harassment that denies kids their right to an education.

The U.S. Department of Education has released a statement and fact sheet on the coronavirus and protecting students’ civil rights. It’s important to know that many states also have anti-bullying laws.

More: FAQs about the coronavirus and special education, evaluations, and IEPs.

About the author

About the author

Andrew M.I. Lee, JD is an editor and attorney who strives to help people understand complex legal, education, and parenting issues.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Lindsay Jones, JD is chief executive officer of the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD).


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