COVID-19 prevention strategies are beginning to evolve and will vary across local jurisdictions. As schools assess their policies, the goal is for schools to remain open for in-person learning for everyone, including students with disabilities. Schools should always consider layered prevention strategies needed to protect the civil rights of students with disabilities and ensure their equal access to safe in-person learning.
Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act protect the rights of individuals with disabilities to have equal access to public facilities and institutions, which means that students with disabilities have the right to access schools without taking on a far greater risk to their health than other students face. To comply with their federal obligations, school districts must (among other things) make reasonable modifications when necessary to ensure equal access for their students with disabilities, absent a showing that the modifications would constitute a fundamental alteration to the program in question. Depending on the circumstances, a school district could decide that some degree of masking is necessary as a reasonable modification to ensure that students with disabilities have meaningful access to in-person schooling without incurring an elevated risk of hospitalization or death due to COVID-19. This is necessarily a fact-specific inquiry depending on each school's particular circumstances and the modifications sought by their students.
Similarly, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act guarantees that all eligible children who require special education, regardless of the nature or severity of their disability, receive a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE). Under IDEA, school officials and the child's parents work as a team to develop an individualized education program that details how the student will access education services. Based on the unique needs of the child, the team could determine that some degree of masking is necessary to ensure a specific child can receive a FAPE in the LRE.
For additional COVID-19 resources relating to IDEA and OSERS, please go to Program Information: FAQs and Responses — Special Education & Rehabilitative Services page.
Parents, guardians and other caregivers may reach out to their local parent training and information center for direct assistance and referrals to other organizations, as well as to gain skills to effectively participate in the education and development of their children. They may also file a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights if they believe that their efforts working with the child's school has not resulted in necessary protections to ensure that their child with a disability can remain safe in the classroom.
Below are links to additional information about how to best support students with disabilities during COVID-19:
- Letter to Educators and Parents Regarding New CDC Recommendations and their Impact on Children with Disabilities (March 24, 2022)
Return to School Roadmap: Development and Implementation of Individualized Education Programs (September 2021):