BLOG: School is in session – Homeschooling during a pandemic

Nina Peckman, Staff Attorney

Nina Peckman, Staff Attorney

The COVID-19 virus has transformed many household kitchens into temporary classrooms. Taking on the responsibility of a teacher, in addition to being a parent and meeting all other responsibilities is a daunting task. For a parent or caretaker of a student with learning issues, it may be even more overwhelming.

The U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) has issued several guidance statements about a school district’s responsibilities during the novel coronavirus-related school closures. Per a March 16th guidance, education must be provided by school districts in a non-discriminatory manner. For example, students from poor and indigent families should have the same access to education services as students from wealthier families. For students with disabilities who do not receive services for an extended period of time, the IEP or 504 Team will have to decide whether or not the student will need additional education services (compensatory education) once students return to school.

A March 21st guidance states that federal laws (IDEA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and ADA requiring that students with disabilities be provided the same opportunities to learn as non-disabled peers) should not be used by schools to deny distance learning opportunities to all students, including students with disabilities. For students with an IEP or 504 plan, distance learning must meet the individual needs of the student to provide a free and appropriate education. The guidance also makes it clear that related services may be provided through a virtual meeting or through phone calls.

On March 23rd, the New Jersey Department of Education posted guidelines that echo the USDOE guidance with a suggestion to visit their website for further updates regarding education services. There is still uncertainty regarding how New Jersey’s education laws will be implemented. For example, there are concerns about how mediations and due process hearings will be conducted. In addition, there is uncertainty regarding the protocols and adequacy of teletherapies. ACNJ plans to keep our advocates informed of any ongoing education issues.

In the cases that I have been involved with in the past week, the child study teams and parents worked together to come up with a reasonable IEP plan under the circumstances. Education laws have not changed, but there will be barriers ahead that will require flexible and creative approaches to implement education programs, such as accommodating students whose families do not have internet access or laptops. Distance learning for some children with disabilities who need one-on-one assistance or have trouble concentrating may be challenging, but school staff can provide some training to parents through an IEP or 504 plan, acting as an additional support for children trying to learn at home.

Please feel free to contact me at npeckman@acnj.org or 973-643-3876, ext. 226 for legal questions and advocacy assistance throughout this pandemic.

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