The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) published a new COVID-19 Q&A on September 28, 2020 (OSEP QA 20-01). While OSEP explicitly cautions that the Q&A “is intended only to provide clarity to the public regarding existing requirements,” it nonetheless provides insights on how long-standing rules and laws will be applied to the novel COVID-19 virus.
In support of school districts that are guiding their decision-making based on the health and safety of students and staff, OSEP repeatedly describes health and safety as “most important” and “paramount.” If a hearing officer or court is making a decision based on the equities (i.e. fairness) the emphasis of OSEP on safety will weigh in favor of schools making reasonable adjustments to how IDEA is implemented. However, OSEP also repeatedly states that school districts “remain responsible for ensuring that a free appropriate public education (FAPE) is provided to all children with disabilities.” This requires an individualized response to COVID-19 that focuses on “each child’s unique needs” and ensures “challenging objectives.”
To strike the balance of protecting health and safety while also providing FAPE, OSEP points school districts to the normal IDEA processes. The Q&A notes that no changes to the law or regulations have been made at the federal level. Interestingly, when discussing the timeline for initial evaluations OSEP advises that states “have the flexibility to establish additional exceptions” to the 60 day initial evaluation timeline. As of this writing, the Ohio Department of Education has not taken actions to allow for COVID-19 specific exceptions from the timeline.
Otherwise, OSEP’s Q&A largely points to approaches that have been addressed in prior “Special Education Spotlight” articles, Ennis Britton blog posts, and in our Coffee Chat webinar series. These approaches include conducting records review evaluations when in-person evaluations are not possible, using virtual team meeting platforms, and delivering services flexibly (e.g. teletherapy, consultation with parents.). OSEP warns against conducting remote evaluations if doing so would violate the instructions of the test publishers.
The discussion of extended school year (ESY) services is perhaps the topic most likely to generate interest in the short-term. After clearly distinguishing ESY from compensatory education or recovery services, OSEP acknowledges the authority of the states to establish standards for ESY. Note that in Ohio the standard is based on excessive regression and recoupment. OSEP proceeds to observe that, understandably, ESY services may not have been provided over the past summer due to COVID-19 restrictions. In such cases, OSEP encourages school districts to “consider” providing ESY during times such as the regular school year or scheduled breaks (e.g. winter break).
The Ennis Britton Special Education Team will continue to monitor and share with clients the latest developments as we navigate this unusual school year. Please contact a member of our team with questions or concerns.
In light of ongoing bans on mass gatherings, many school districts are moving to a graduation ceremony plan that involves a video or other online elements (e.g. video, PowerPoint, etc.). While virtual commencements may be almost unheard of prior to this spring, there are long-standing legal requirements that apply to this format just as they would to traditional, in-person ceremonies.
Traditional graduation ceremonies include many features aimed at making them accessible to students, family and friends, and school employees who have disabilities. Because school facilities are already subject to Americans with Disabilities Act design requirements everything from the parking lots, building entrances, restrooms, and seating areas are already accessible. Specific to the graduation ceremony itself, a school might have wheelchair ramps to access the stage, a sign language interpreter, and other accommodations.
The same anti-discrimination laws that inform the accommodations described above also apply to online services offered by school districts. In recent years, disability rights activists have filed hundreds of complaints regarding school district website accessibility. In many cases, the activists had no connection at all to the district against which the complaint was filed. They were simply scouring the internet for websites with obvious accessibility concerns. It is entirely possible that a similar approach may be used in relation to this year’s virtual graduation ceremonies. In any event, it makes good sense for districts to address website accessibility, irrespective of the pandemic.
As such, and in our experience assisting school districts that were subject to website accessibility complaints, it seems that there are certain “red flags” that may have caused some websites to be targeted for complaints while others were not. Applying this lesson to virtual graduation ceremonies, there are some basic steps that can still be taken to reduce the risk of receiving an investigation letter from the Office for Civil Rights:
- Investigate practical captioning options: Many online platforms have captioning already built-in, so it may just be a matter of enabling this feature and editing the automatic captioning. Captioning can stand in the place of a sign language interpreter if that is normally offered at your district’s ceremonies. Of course, many graduation ceremonies in the past did not have an interpreter and this has not caused widespread complaints. The idea now is to investigate what options are available in the online platform that you use for the ceremony and to use available tools to reduce your risks.
- Pay attention to color contrast: School colors are a source of pride and frequently used in important rituals like graduation. However, if the school colors are low contrast (e.g. red and orange, green and blue) it may cause problems for people with vision-related disabilities. Consider pairing neutral alternative colors like black or white with a school color to avoid low contrast pairings.
- Ensure announcements of the ceremony details are formatted for screen reader use: People with vision-related disabilities sometimes use screen readers to access electronic written information. Some file formats are less screen reader-friendly. PDF files and other picture type files can be problematic. Simpler can be better when it comes to conveying information in writing. A basic email or attached Word document is less likely to cause challenges.
- Make access to the virtual ceremony accessible: A common challenge with school websites is that they are not easily navigated by individuals with physical challenges that prevent them from using a mouse. Consider emailing students and their families a link that goes directly to the virtual ceremony. The more steps that must be taken to get to the virtual ceremony, the more risk there is of an accessibility issue (e.g. a drop-down menu that cannot be easily accessed using keyboard tabbing, a link button that is not tagged, etc.).
The efforts taken by school districts to offer something special for seniors graduating under the current conditions are admirable. Paying close attention to accessibility for people with disabilities will help ensure that these celebrations do not lead to legal headaches down the road.
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.
Districts should expect to see a rise in unemployment claims due to the current pandemic. Ohio received 187,000 claims during the week of March 15-21. Substitutes, in particular, are likely to make claims during this time.
Governor DeWine has issued an order (EO 2020-03D) to ease the process of obtaining unemployment benefits. Employees who are ordered to stay home or isolated by an employer or public health authority, whether infected or not, will qualify for benefits so long as the employee is otherwise eligible. The basic requirements for eligibility for benefits are that a claimant has worked a sufficient number of hours and has earned a sufficient amount of pay during a period referred to as the “base period.” The base period is the first four of the last five completed calendar quarters at the time the claim is filed. (Claims filed in March would be calculated on the four quarters beginning October 1, 2018, through September 30, 2019.) Individuals must have at least 20 weeks of employment and an average weekly wage of $269 during the base period of the claim.
ODJFS issued a mass-layoff number (2000180) that employees can use to expedite the handling of their claim. Employees subject to RIF due to COVID-19 can use this form and reference number. http://www.odjfs.state.oh.us/forms/num/JFS00671/pdf/.
Substitute employees may file claims for lack of work due to the ordered shutdown of the school to students. Outside of the context of a shutdown, districts may attempt to challenge lack of work claims by substitutes, due to the nature of the assignment not having guaranteed hours or days of work per year. Many substitutes pick and choose their own assignments. Those arguments will not be applicable, where, as here, there are no assignments for the substitute to choose from. Therefore, such employees are much more likely to receive benefits under these circumstances.
Additional benefits of the order are that certain benefit recipients will not be subject to the work search requirement during the period of the emergency. All claimants, however, will continue to be required to be “able and available for work,” in order to receive benefits.
Finally, penalties against employers for failing to provide reports or make payments during the emergency declaration period.
The merits of each claim are fact dependent and may be subject to challenge even in light of the order. Please do not hesitate to contact an attorney at Ennis Britton to discuss your particular claim.
Many public employers are considering staffing adjustments in light of the coronavirus and its impact on available work. For those employees not covered under contracts that must be paid in the case of an “epidemic or other public calamity” pursuant to RC 3319.08(B) and 3319.081(G), layoffs are being contemplated. In order to have all the information on the financial impact of such a decision, the public employer should consider whether it is a “contributory employer” or a “reimbursing employer.”
Generally speaking, public employers are reimbursing employers. Essentially, reimbursing employers are self-insured and will be billed dollar-for-dollar by the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services for claims paid. Public entity employers who have elected to become a contributory employer have paid unemployment tax. Contributory employers will have their claims mutualized with other employers in the state and will not have to reimburse on a dollar-for-dollar basis. Determining if the public entity is a contributory employer or a reimbursing employer will be necessary to determine how much will be saved via staffing reductions.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and
Economic Security Act (the CARES Act) provides that reimbursing employers may
be reimbursed for one-half of the amounts paid into a state unemployment trust
fund between March 13, 2020, and December 31, 2020.
If you have any questions regarding unemployment compensation issues, please reach out to any of the Ennis Britton lawyers.