As the “vast majority of states have closed public schools in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus,” reports NPR, “many districts are now faced with a dilemma: how to provide remote learning to students without running afoul of civil rights and disability laws.” Whether due to lack of accessibility in online lessons themselves or lack of personal attendants to see to their needs during lessons, many special ed students “may not be able to adapt or follow along.” That’s a potential legal problem because the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that schools offer special ed students, who make up 14 percent of American students, an appropriate equivalent public education. (Two other disabled‐rights laws, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504), and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, also regulate school services.)
“These concerns have prompted many districts, like Chicago Public Schools, to only provide ‘enrichment’ while schools are closed, with no ‘new learning,’ and no grading or tracking of attendance.” And some disability advocates stoutly defend this stance: until schools can build accessibility, extra help, and needed personal attendant services into each and every online lesson, in their view, IDEA and the other laws should forbid schools from giving the majority of kids a reasonable hope to advance by completing the year’s scheduled curriculum.
This is destructive zealotry. Fortunately, in the view of the U.S. Department of Education and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, it is not a result compelled by federal law. On March 21 the Department put out guidance advising public school systems that it would recognize and recommend a maximum of flexibility during this new and unprecedented emergency and that it was legitimate for schools to adopt a variety of different strategies to meet disabled kids’ needs, ranging from instruction delivered through alternative means and media to compensatory instruction after schools are able to resume normal operation.
The guidance should be applauded. It’s a legitimate focus of policy to invest in research and resources so that during and after this unplanned emergency kids with special needs can advance too, and in more than just an “enrichment” way. But in the meantime, the advancement of the student body as a whole should not be held hostage to anti‐discrimination principles applied in a spirit of ideological fanaticism.