Department of Education: Students with Disabilities Need Consideration as Schools Go Mask

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Education Secretary Miguel Cardona explains how new COVID-19 guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are impacting the educational outcomes of students with disabilities. (Susan Walsh/Pool/CNP/Zuma Press/TNS)

Schools are warned that they must continue to accommodate the needs of students with disabilities – including those at high risk for COVID-19 – as they remove masking requirements and other pandemic precautions.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona wrote to educators and parents late last week in light of recently updated Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that have led to many schools abandoning their mask requirements.

“The department recognizes the challenges that many families have faced as they struggle to balance the need for their child’s physical safety with their child’s need for in-person learning,” Cardona wrote. “As we enter this next phase of pandemic response, we urge schools to lead with equity and inclusion to ensure all students have access to in-person learning alongside their peers.”

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In the letter, Cardona said schools remain obligated to provide a safe learning environment for children with disabilities consistent with their rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. He notes that many people with disabilities are at higher risk for serious complications from COVID-19, according to the CDC.

“Schools must continue to take steps to preserve safe in-person learning opportunities for students with disabilities, including those who are at high risk of serious consequences from COVID-19,” the letter read. “To comply with their federal non-discrimination obligations under Section 504, school districts must make reasonable modifications as necessary to provide equal access to their students with disabilities, in the absence of evidence that the changes would constitute a fundamental change or undue administrative burden on the program.”

If a parent or other member of a child’s individualized education program, or IEP, team, or Section 504 team believes that any type of COVID-19 prevention strategy 19 is necessary to ensure free and appropriate public education, the team should consider such measures. , Cardona said. If the team agrees, the strategy should be incorporated into the student’s IEP or Section 504 plan.

The letter states that any state or local law, rule, regulation, or policy that prevents IEP or 504 teams from meeting the health care needs of students with disabilities violates federal law.

When it comes to masking specifically, Cardona said decisions have to be made on a case-by-case basis.

“Depending on the circumstances, a school might decide that some degree of masking of students and staff is necessary as a reasonable modification to ensure that students with disabilities have equal access to in-person learning without being at high risk of hospitalization or death due to COVID-19,” the letter read. “In addition to deciding that a student with specific circumstances or needs must wear a mask or modified mask, such as with a clear forehead, a school may determine that it is also necessary for other people in the school setting to wear masks, depending on the specific circumstances of the student with a disability and taking into account relevant health advice.

In addition to masks, schools can consider other prevention strategies, including vaccination, testing and ventilation, the letter says.

As schools strive to accommodate the needs of students with disabilities, they should not resort to placing them in segregated environments, Cardona said.

“Similarly, schools should be careful when selecting or identifying students with disabilities as the cause of any perceived burden to avoid stigma and risk of bullying and should take steps to address any bullying that occurs,” he wrote.

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