Special Education

Protect Students With Disabilities as COVID Rules Ease, Education Secretary Tells Schools

By Evie Blad — March 25, 2022 3 min read
Image of a student holding a mask and a backpack near the entrance of a classroom.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Even as schools relax some COVID-19 rules, like mask mandates, they are legally obligated to take steps to protect students with disabilities, who may be at greater risk of severe illness than their peers, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said.

To meet the requirements of federal disability rights laws, for example, schools may require teachers and peers to mask around higher-risk students, even if there isn’t a school-wide requirement to do so, Cardona said in a letter to educators and parents March 24.

“The [Education] Department recognizes the difficulties many families have experienced as they strived to balance the need to ensure their child’s physical safety and 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.”

His caution comes weeks after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new risk metrics and said schools in most of the country could drop mask requirements.

That move alarmed some parents of medically vulnerable children, who’ve argued in court that universal masking is necessary for their children to safely access in-person instruction. Last year, the Biden administration also asserted that some states may have violated the Americans with Disabilities Act when they prohibited local school systems from requiring masks.

The CDC’s new metrics dictate community risk levels based on a formula that incorporates hospital capacity, rather than overall case counts. It only recommends universal school masking in the highest-spread areas— 1.65 percent of counties nationwide under the most recent analysis from the agency.

Higher-risk individuals should consult with their doctor about precautions, including masking, if they live in a lower-risk area, the CDC urged. Many students with disabilities, including conditions like asthma and down syndrome, are among those classified as high-risk by they federal agency.

Echoing advocates’ concerns

As the CDC made the shift in recommendations, some disability rights groups like the ARC of the United States lamented that leaders didn’t stress schools’ obligations to students, which may include continued precautions in some classrooms.

Echoing those cautions, Cardona wrote:"It is important to remember that State and local educational agencies ... are bound by Federal laws, including Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to ensure the inclusion of students with disabilities, including those experiencing Long COVID, in our nation’s schools.”

See Also

Kindergartener Quinn Bonk helps her classmate Carter Fairley, both 6, as the two color hearts for a craft project together during a Valentine's Day party in kindergarten teacher Julie VanEvery's classroom on Monday, Feb. 14, 2022 at Thomson Elementary School in Davison, Mich.
Kindergartener Quinn Bonk, right, helps her classmate Carter Fairley on a craft project during a Valentine's Day party last month at Thomson Elementary School in Davison, Mich.
Jake May/The Flint Journal via AP

Under a student’s individualized education program or plan for accommodations under Section 504, educators and families may make special plans to meet eligible students’ “school-related health needs,” the letter said.

That may mean the school provides higher-risk students with high-quality masks, like N95s, that can provide extra protection to the wearer, even if those around them have uncovered faces.

It might also mean schools agree to extra precautions, like sanitizing and masking, in classrooms of higher-risk students, Cardona said.

Federal laws also require schools to educate students with disabilities in the least-restrictive environment possible. That means schools can’t isolate or segregate higher-risk students from their peers as a COVID-19 precaution, Cardona cautioned.

“Similarly, schools should be cautious about singling out or identifying students with disabilities as the cause of any perceived burden to avoid stigma and the risk of bullying and must take steps to address any bullying that does occur,” Cardona wrote.

Groups like the National Center for Learning Disabilities praised Cardona’s message.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Early Childhood Webinar
How the Science of Reading Elevates Our Early Learners to Success
From the creators of ABCmouse, learn how a solution grounded in the science of reading can prepare our youngest learners for kindergarten.
Content provided by Age of Learning
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
English-Language Learners Webinar
Classroom Strategies for Building EL Students’ Confidence and Success
Fueling success for EL students who are learning new concepts while navigating an unfamiliar language. Join the national discussion of strategies and Q&A.
Content provided by Project Lead The Way
Future of Work Live Online Discussion Seat at the Table: Understanding the Critical Link Between Student Mental Health and the Future of Work
In recent months, there’s been a rallying cry against the teaching of social-emotional skills. Discover why students need these skills now more than ever.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Special Education Quiz Quiz Yourself: How Much Do You Know About Learning Differences?
Answer 10 questions to assess your knowledge on learning differences.
Special Education What the Research Says Co-Teaching: Valuable But Hard to Get Right
Teachers worry that cramped schedules, power struggles, and uncertainty can hinder learning for students with disabilities.
5 min read
special report v38 15 specialeducation 860
Fifth grade teacher Kara Houppert and special education teacher Laura Eisinger co-teach a class in Naples, N.Y., in 2018.
Mike Bradley for Education Week
Special Education Reports Teaching Students With Learning Differences: Results of a National Survey
This report examines survey findings about implementation of best practices for teaching students with learning differences.
Special Education New Discipline Guidance Focuses on Discrimination Against Students With Disabilities
The Biden administration aims to clarify how federal law protects students with disabilities.
6 min read
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington on Aug. 5, 2021.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona speaks at a White House briefing in August 2021. The U.S. Department of Education has just released guidance on protecting students with disabilities from discriminatory discipline practices.
Susan Walsh/AP