The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was passed by Congress on March 27, 2020. Part of the act directs U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to submit a report to Congress. The report, that must be submitted by the end of April, is to make recommendations for any additional waivers that might be needed under IDEA, in direct response to the COVID-19 pandemic. There is reason to believe that a concerted effort on the part of school districts could result in much-needed flexibility during this unprecedented time.
The National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE) and the Council of Administrators of Special Education (CASE) jointly wrote a letter in anticipation of the report the DeVos will submit. The letter asks for flexibilities for specific IDEA provisions that have been affected by COVID-19. Those provisions include timelines, procedural activities, and fiscal management. Other groups, including parent groups pushing back hard against reasonable adjustments in light of the global pandemic, are also lobbying for what flexibility should entail.
Concerns that we are hearing from clients often center on flexibility related to evaluation timelines (especially initial evaluations), recognition that what constitutes a free, appropriate, public education during the health emergency need not match what would be provided under regular operations, and realistic expectations for compensatory education upon resumption of regular school operations. If you would like to contribute to the conversation on what the flexibilities might look like, now is the time. Get in contact with professional organizations to lobby for what you feel strongly about. Your opinion matters.
In two recent cases, a court of appeals has upheld political subdivision immunity in favor of school boards who have been sued by students and/or their parents.
In the first case, decided on March 26, 2020, the Court of Appeals for the Tenth District found in favor of the school board when the board requested the case be dismissed on immunity grounds. The case involved claims that, during the school’s annual class rocket launch, one of the rockets veered off course and struck appellant on her right lower leg, causing burns and scarring. The complaint further alleged that the teacher who supervised the launch failed to take proper precautions in launching the rocket. Additionally, alleged the school board permitted an unsafe environment and failed to require proper instruction. The court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the accident was due to a physical defect on the grounds or buildings owned by the school district, therefore destroying the Board’s asserted immunity defense. The Court found that the rocket failure did not result from a physical defect on the grounds or buildings of the school district, and further, that the teacher exercised judgment and discretion in conducting the experiment. The Court opined that so long as the teacher did not act in a wanton or reckless manner, the teacher and the Board were immune from liability. An individual is deemed to act wantonly if that person acts without consideration of possible harmful consequences. A person who is reckless is aware that one’s conduct creates an unreasonable risk of physical harm to another, and proceeds anyway.
In a separate Tenth District case, also decided on March 26, 2020, the court upheld the immunity defense for a school board and its athletic staff after a sixteen-year-old student-athlete drowned while on a team basketball summer beach trip to Fripp Island. Here, the Court found that immunity “extends to most school activities and administrative functions of the educational process, even if not directly comprising part of the classroom teaching process.” The trip was organized by the head varsity basketball coach, whose job description indicates that the position is a year-round assignment, and the trip counted toward the number of days that the coach is permitted to provide organized basketball instruction to the team, per the Ohio High School Athletic Association (“OHSAA”) guidelines. The connection of the outing to functions of the educational process was considered by the court. The athletic director, the principal, and the superintendent were aware of and approved the Fripp Island trip. The school district provided a vehicle to transport players, the team members wore their school practice uniforms while they participated in practice, and participated in scrimmages against other teams during the five days of the trip. Similarly, the Court found that the coach and staff did not act in a reckless or wanton manner and thus were immune from liability in the exercise of discretion and judgment that are part of their job duties.
These cases emphasize that Ohio courts will recognize and enforce the immunity defense when properly applied and in the absence of wanton, reckless, or otherwise irresponsible actions on the part of district staff. The extension of this coverage to activities often seen as outside the scope of the educational process enlarges staff protections in its many areas of student supervision.
Douglas v. Columbus City Schools Bd. of Edn., 2020-Ohio-1133
Michael v. Worthington City School Dist., 2020-Ohio-1134
On March 25, 2020, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced efforts to increase flexibility regarding payments for student loan borrows. The efforts are to ensure that borrowers will not endure additional stress in making ends meet during the unprecedented and burdensome times we are in. The flexibility will be for no less than 60 days from March 13, 2020, the date that President Donald Trump declared a national emergency relating to COVID-19.
DeVos’ efforts include halting all of the requests made to the U.S. Treasury that comprise withholding money from defaulted borrowers, known as Treasury offsets. These are withholdings from remittances such as federal income tax refunds, Social Security payments, or other federal payments that are withheld at the direction of the Department or Education or another debt collection agency. Additionally, Devos directed the Department of Education to refund nearly $1.8 billion in offsets to over 830,000 borrowers.
DeVos’ efforts include any wage garnishments. The Department of Education is relying on employers to make the change to borrowers’ paychecks and halt wage garnishments and is directing employees to contact their employers’ human resources department for assistance.
Districts should be proactive in ensuring that employee wages are not continuing to be garnished during this time. Please reach out to any of the Ennis Britton attorneys with any questions. For more information, visit StudentAid.gov/coronavirus.