As Outbreak Spreads, State Says Mass. Public Schools Must Educate Students With Disabilities

School districts in Massachusetts have new marching orders from the state: they will have to start educating students with disabilities remotely as soon as possible.

In a remote meeting Thursday morning, Russell Johnston — director of special education at the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education — told nearly 1,000 administrators, educators and advocates that “we’ve got to get our wheels turning” in offering those students the “free appropriate public education” to which they’re entitled under state and federal law.

A DESE FAQ published on March 17 had said that districts that weren’t offering “any educational services to the general student population” during the coronavirus closures were “not required” to provide services to students with disabilities.

In Massachusetts, that meant many school leaders were offering enrichment materials to students rather than new lessons in an attempt to follow the then-current state guidance. DESE declined requests to comment.

That has now changed. Johnston said on the call that districts should be in communication with the families of students with disabilities, and should prepare to offer them either “supports and resources” — for example, online assignments, projects and packets — or outright “instruction and services,” as soon as they are able.

Some educators on the call asked for Johnston to provide a specific timeline, but he demurred, saying that districts vary widely in their access to technology, staffing levels and student populations.

Johnston acknowledged that this “transition moment” has been abrupt, but he argued that’s only because the coronavirus crisis is itself fast-evolving.

First of all, he noted that the state’s public schools will be now closed for at least six weeks. Gov. Charlie Baker ordered the extension of the closure until May 4 at the earliest.

And the state’s shift mirrors one made by the U.S. Department of Education, which oversees the enforcement of federal disability law. On March 12, the department made a similar interpretation of the law — only to issue an update last Saturday, aimed at correcting what it called that “serious misunderstanding.”

That update said that districts must provide students with disabilities with education, as far as “consistent with the need to protect the health and safety” of students and staff. Both the federal and state authorities allowed for inevitable delays.

Johnston said that his team at DESE developed the new guidance in conversation with educators, parents and advocacy groups. On Monday, three of those groups wrote an open letter to Johnston that highlighted disparities in communication and delivery of services to students with disabilities and their families.

The state is expected to publish its updated guidance as early as Thursday afternoon.

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Max Larkin Reporter, Education
Max Larkin was an education reporter for WBUR.



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