The NCSL Blog


By Austin Reid

This year marks the 45th anniversary of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), a landmark civil rights law that ensures states and school districts provide a free appropriate public education to all children with disabilities.

Credit: Florida Department of EducationYet as we commemorate this important law, schools are grappling with how to provide education during the global pandemic. In 2020, the guarantee of educational opportunity that IDEA provides for students with disabilities will be more important than ever.

In the initial months of the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Education made clear that schools must continue to provide special education and related services even if schools operate through distance instruction. While the CARES Act gave authority to recommend pandemic-related flexibilities within IDEA, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos declined to recommend any changes to the core tenets of the law to Congress.

Even as the department exhorted schools to provide in-person services through alternative methods, the sudden closure of schools in the spring semester, by most accounts, limited access to the special education services that students need to make progress on their individualized education program (IEP) goals. This was especially true for students with the most severe disabilities, who were not able to access the in-person services they require.

As states and districts announce school reopening frameworks for the fall semester, considerations of where and how students with disabilities will receive special education services are key factors in plans. Disability advocacy groups such as the National Association of State Directors of Special Education have also put forth guidance on how to best serve students with disabilities during the pandemic.

Many state plans discuss the provision of special education services even if in-person attendance is significantly limited. For instance, Virginia’s plan says that, even in its most restricted reopening phase, districts may elect to provide in-person instruction for students with disabilities in both extended school year services and school year special education services. Massachusetts’ state reopening plan recommends providing “as much in-person instruction as possible” for students with moderate to severe disabilities, even if the rest of the students are in a hybrid model of instruction.

Given the learning loss that occurred during the spring semester closures, state plans, like those from New Jersey and Florida, ask students’ IEP teams to assess the loss of critical skills and provide recovery services to ensure a successful start to the school year. IEP teams are also asked to work with students and their families to determine how services and supports will be adapted if a student attends classes in a hybrid model of in-person and virtual instruction. Finally, as districts adjust their school operation status in response to the spread of the pandemic, advocates are also closely watching how the federal government, states and families will monitor school-level implementation of IDEA to ensure its guarantees are met for every student.

Over nearly five decades, IDEA has arguably been the most impactful federal education law and has led to improved outcomes for students with disabilities. Yet as the pandemic challenges every aspect of schooling, 2020 could very well be the most consequential year in its history.

This piece is part of NCSL’s yearlong celebration of ADA30, and ongoing partnership with the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Disability Employment Policy’s State Exchange on Employment & Disability (SEED). SEED partners with intermediary organizations like NCSL to ensure that state and local policymakers have the tools and resources they need to develop and disseminate meaningful policies related to disability-inclusive workforce development.

Austin Reid is the education committee director in NCSL's State-Federal Division.

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.