U.S. Department of Education Announces Plans to Strengthen Section 504 in Upcoming Months

On May 6, 2022, the U.S. Department of Education announced its Intent to Strengthen and Protect Rights for Students with Disabilities by Amending Regulations Implementing Section 504, the landmark disability civil rights law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability in schools and postsecondary institutions. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”) plans to gather public input on possible amendments to Section 504 to determine how to best improve current regulations to assist students with disabilities. As part of Mental Health Awareness Month and in accordance with President Biden’s strategy to address our nation’s mental health crisis, OCR will also gather input from individuals with disabilities who have mental health needs and their advocates.

U.S. DOE Emphasizes Obligations to Protect High-Risk Students as Pandemic Improves  

On March 24, 2020, Dr. Miguel Cardona, Secretary of Education, wrote a letter to educators and parents emphasizing the Biden Administration’s continued commitment to providing services and supports to allow students with disabilities to learn safely alongside their peers during the pandemic.  This letter provides strategies for educators, Districts, and families to enable students with disabilities to participate in in-person instruction and to receive a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”) in the least restrictive environment.  

Secretary Cardona first encourages IEP teams to leverage IEP and Section 504 processes to provide protections for in-person learning.  IEP teams (ARD Committees in Texas) and Section 504 committees must address school-related health needs of students with disabilities at an increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19 in IEPs and Section 504 plans and place students in the least restrictive environment that meets those needs. IEP teams and Section 504 committees should also consider whether students at a heightened risk of severe illness from COVID-19 require a health plan to address preventative and risk-reducing strategies, such as proper sanitizing or physical distancing. When health plans are included in the student’s IEP or Section 504 plan, these documents must be provided to each individual responsible for implementing the student’s IEP or Section 504 plan.   

Masks in Schools are Done! Or Are They? Continued Masking Requirements under Section 504 and ADA

With the federal government and state and local governments lifting mask requirements, it feels like we may be coming to the end of a two-year masking nightmare in schools. As cases begin to decline, schools across the country are allowing staff and students to come to school mask-free. When it comes to medically-fragile students, however, the risks of COVID-19 may continue for a long time after the rest of the world has moved on from the virus. What responsibilities remain for schools to require masking in the school environment to protect students with disabilities?  

New OCR Fact Sheet Shines Light on Provision of FAPE, Comp Services for 504 Eligible Students

Since COVID-19 first reared its ugly head, we have been discussing when and to what extent schools would be required to provide students with disabilities compensatory services due to the pandemic. On February 16, 2022, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) released a fact sheet reminding schools that the responsibility to provide compensatory services also applies to students receiving services under Section 504. OCR recognizes that a school’s provision of compensatory services to a student does not devalue the school’s good faith efforts to educate students with disabilities during these difficult circumstances. Instead, OCR describes compensatory services as a remedy to address the unfortunate reality that unavoidable interruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic may have harmed many students with disabilities.  

The fact sheet also reminds schools of the responsibility to continue providing FAPE as the COVID-19 pandemic lingers. Notably, the fact sheet recommends that when considering whether changes in services are necessary to provide a student FAPE, Section 504 teams should consider not only the impact of the loss of services on skills and any mental health and trauma concerns but also any physical health effects of “long COVID.” Keep reading for more analysis of this new resource. 

The Top Three Changes to the Texas Dyslexia Handbook Schools Should Know Now

On February 10, 2022, updates to the Texas Dyslexia Handbook went into effect. The State Board of Education (SBOE) previously approved the handbook revisions in September 2021. The changes necessitate updates to school district policies, procedures, and practices related to dyslexia.

Because dyslexia remains a “hot button issue” in Texas, including a growing subject of special education litigation, schools should prioritize compliance with the procedures in the updated handbook. To facilitate the updates schools should undertake, here are the three most significant changes from the handbook that Texas schools should know and act on now.

Thompson & Horton Launches New Special Education Law Blog

Thompson & Horton is excited to announce its newest blog: SpEd Law Spotlight. With a focus on Special Education law topics facing school leaders and educators, the blog will bring important updates on special education to school districts in Texas and beyond.

The blog will be authored by members of the Thompson & Horton Special Education team. Our team collectively has decades of experience helping schools navigate the intricacies of special education law, and is excited to bring you practical, timely insights on this dynamic area of law.

We encourage you to head over today to spedlawspotlight.com to check out the new blog. To sign up for our thought leadership email alerts, email us at info@thompsonhorton.com. Also, make sure to follow Thompson & Horton on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn so you will know when new articles go up. We already have updates on predetermination, FAPE, and child find duties in the works, that you won’t want to miss out on.