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Legal FAQs on Coronavirus, School Closings, and Special Education

By Andrew M.I. Lee, JD on

Updated April 3, 2020

Nearly all schools are closed due to the coronavirus. Working with Lindsay Jones of our partner, the National Center for Learning Disabilities, we created this FAQ to answer common legal questions you may have about and other education issues.

As you read these FAQs, 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, and the U.S. Department of Education’s up-to-date coronavirus information page. But these FAQs will 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 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 close and decide to have all kids learn at home, are they still required to provide special education?

Yes. Kids with disabilities have the right to a . If a state or school district decides that all students must be taught at home for public safety, it must have a plan for special education services.

Many states and schools have already put these plans in place, while others are just beginning to do so. Schools will also need to plan for how kids can use or get equal access if learning is online or at home. This could mean providing assistive technology tools or other supports. For more insight, watch this seven-minute webinar from the U.S. Department of Education on accessibility and online education.

When all kids are learning at home, what happens to special instruction or related services in a child’s IEP?

We don’t know all the details yet.

However, the U.S. Department of Education has created legal guidance on coronavirus and services for students with disabilities.

In the guidance, the U.S. Department of Education says schools must “make every effort to provide special education and related services” to students. But it notes that there could be “exceptional circumstances” that change how services take place.

Many IEP services are provided one-on-one or in small groups. For example, a student’s IEP might require 30 minutes of occupational therapy. How will the school deliver this? Will there be enough staff to send someone to every family’s home? Will parents want visitors?

Schools will need to iron out a lot of details. If services are missed, the U.S. Department of Education says IEP teams must consider make-up or “compensatory” services.

As schools continue to manage coronavirus, there may be situations where families and schools disagree. Despite any differences, it’s important to work together to make sure everyone stays safe and that kids get the services they need.

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 coronavirus and protecting students’ civil rights. It’s important to know that many states also have anti-bullying laws.

If a child with an IEP has coronavirus and is sent home, but the school stays open in person, does the child have the right to instruction at home?

This isn’t really happening now, as nearly all schools are closed. In the future, however, it may come up when schools reopen in person. And the answer is a bit complicated.

If kids have IEPs, the U.S. Department of Education says they need to be classified as needing homebound instruction because of a medical problem, ordered by a doctor. They also must be out for an extended time (usually 10 consecutive days or more).

Once this happens, the IEP team must hold a meeting to figure out how to provide education and services to the child. That might include forms of distance learning, like schoolwork packets, telephone or video calls, online classes, or some other learning away from school. Any services might need to be adapted because of the child’s location and illness. However, the child still has the right to them.

We’ll be working with NCLD to update these FAQs as we learn more. If you have any input on these FAQs, please share it with us.

Get more coronavirus updates and tips from Understood.

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