On May 13, 2021, the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights published a Q&A on Civil Rights and School Reopening in the COVID-19 Environment. The document is aimed at “helping schools reopen safely and in ways that support equity among students” and addresses obligations under Section 504 (prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability), Title VI (prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin), and Title IX (prohibiting discrimination based on sex). In the disability section, most of the answers repeat or expand on prior guidance from the Department. And on the one question where we are anticipating new guidance, the answer: keep anticipating. “The Department is aware of important questions regarding compensatory services for students with disabilities and plans to address those in a separate guidance document.” A brief summary of the other answers follows.
To start, yes, public schools still have to comply with Section 504 (was there any doubt?). Given that obligation, when schools are operating remotely, students are still entitled to FAPE and Section 504 teams and IEP teams need to make individualized determinations about whether adjustments are needed in this new model. This guidance echoes what the Department has said since early in the pandemic. The Q&A also reiterates that remote learning services must be provided in a way that is accessible to students with disabilities (accommodations like captioning on videos and audio versions of written text).