15 Apr Mississippi Lawmakers Should Oppose Waivers for Students with Disabilities
Amelia Huckins is the Equal Justice Works Fellow at the Mississippi Center for Justice, a public service law firm that fights discrimination, economic, and social injustice through legal representation, policy advocacy, and community education.
The CARES Act’s provision allowing the U.S. Department of Education to recommend waivers for federal special education requirements jeopardizes the educational futures of students with disabilities in Mississippi.
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted public education across America, but in Mississippi, which ranks 42nd in the nation in broadband access, the disruption is acute because so many families do not have internet access to receive e-instruction for their children. Students with disabilities are particularly vulnerable because it is impossible or impractical for schools to remotely provide these students with the services required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504).
The CARES Act—the federal coronavirus relief bill—allows U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to recommend legislative waivers to permit schools to avoid their obligations to students with disabilities under federal law. Secretary DeVos has 30 days to submit her recommendations to Congress; Congress will then determine whether to grant the waivers.
These waivers would allow schools to delay initial special education evaluations, annual reviews of students’ special education plans (called individualized education programs or IEPs), and other vital special education services. Under the proposed waivers, schools in Mississippi could escape their special education duties until October or November 2020, which means students could miss out on critical services for one-fourth of the 2020–2021 school year. Special education students are already at risk of falling behind this school year due to school closures; they should be given every opportunity to succeed once school reopens.
Waivers are not necessary, even during a pandemic, because the law allows parents and schools to participate in special education meetings via phone or video conference if they have adequate internet access. Schools can even amend a child’s special education plan without an in-person meeting under the IDEA. Many schools in Mississippi already hold virtual special education meetings. There is no need for Congress to waive the protections intended to ensure the success of all students with disabilities because schools have successfully adapted to closures: they now use phone or video technology to comply with the requirements in the federal laws.
Only Congress, not Secretary DeVos, can waive the requirements contained in the IDEA and Section 504. Therefore, to protect the rights of students with disabilities in Mississippi, your Senators and House Representative in Congress need to hear from you. Please call to urge your elected officials to:
Oppose any waivers to special education under the IDEA and Section 504;
Explain why the waivers are unnecessary; and
Provide states with extra funding that can be used to assist schools and families with accessing virtual learning and give extended school year and compensatory services to students with disabilities to mitigate the loss of learning time due to school closures.