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Betsy DeVos Education Secretary
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Will Disability Laws Be Waived During School Closures?

Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Education Secretary, says she does not recommend that Congress waive the main requirements of three federal education laws.

These laws include IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Act. This law ensures that children who have disabilities will have the right to a free, appropriate public education.

Education Waiver Provisions Made Disability Advocates Nervous

When the CARES act was passed by Congress, a provision was added that allowed the Secretary to request waivers during the pandemic to parts of the special education law.

The concern at hand was that by strictly holding to IDEA and other laws could hinder schools from moving to virtual and home-based settings.

However, the waiver provision made disability advocates nervous. “We’re talking about waiving a civil right for our most vulnerable people in our society, children who don’t vote, who have no voice, who are relying on their parents to advocate for them,” said Stephanie Langer, a civil rights attorney in Florida who has a special focus on education and disability.

Thankfully, the Education Department has decided that no big changes were needed. “While the Department has provided extensive flexibility to help schools transition, there is no reason for Congress to waive any provision designed to keep students learning,” said DeVos in a statement.

DeVos Issues Limited Waivers, Extends School Timelines

The bulk of IDEA remains unchanged, but DeVos did issue limited waivers in a few areas of the law. This includes one waiver that will extend the timeline that schools have to offer services.

“This is truly a celebration,” said Kelly Grillo, who works as a special education coordinator in Indiana. “My teams are elated to keep IDEA intact. Waivers would seriously threaten equitable education.”

As a result, a big issue that schools have faced as they’ve moved on to virtual classrooms is their ability to provide special education. They were concerned that if they couldn’t meet the needs of their students with disabilities, that they might get sued.

However, in March the Education Department issued guidance that the schools be flexible. They said that disability law “should not prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction.”

That flexibility, according to Educators, has helped them in improving what they’re able to offer to students. “This situation made us get creative and actually allowed us to have an all-hands-on-deck approach,” said Grillo.

But advocates still say there are some areas that need to be closely watched. This includes New Jersey, where parents have been recently asked to waive their right to sue before school districts had a chance to provide their children with special education services.