What should schools do to help students with disabilities meet COVID-19 safety guidelines in school?
The Vermont Agency of Education sent out guidelines on COVID-19 safety measures for students with disabilities returning to in-person education. The guidelines cover face masks, hand washing, and social distancing. Some students with disabilities may find it challenging to follow these guidelines. Schools should work with students to make sure they continue to receive a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the least restrictive setting while meeting COVID-19 safety guidelines.
Schools must develop and put in place strategies to help students with disabilities meet COVID-19 safety guidelines. These may include:
- Gradually build the length of time in which the student can tolerate wearing a mask
- Schedule mask “breaks” at times when students can be physically apart outside
- Offer students masks with different sizes, styles and textures
- Offer clear face shields that meet safety guidelines
- Use of a Functional Behavior Assessment-driven support plan with a goal of tolerating a face covering
- Provide plastic shields or other physical barriers at the student’s workstation until they can tolerate a face covering
- Teach, model and practice social distancing
- Use markers such as tape on floors to mark areas that students need to stay in
- Use objects such as hula hoops and pool noodles to show safe social distancing
- Use step by step instructions for hand washing
- Use timers to show the safe length of time for hand washing
- Use unscented soap or soap with a scent the student likes
What if a student is still not able to meet COVID-19 safety guidelines?
The student’s team should meet and talk about other services, accommodations or technology to help the student meet COVID-19 safety guidelines. If a student still cannot meet the guidelines, the school may consider a change of placement that will better support the student’s needs.
If a student’s placement is changed, or the student is moved to a fully remote placement, the school must follow all procedural safeguards. This means the team must:
- Meet to discuss the proposed change in placement
- Consider less restrictive placements
- Try to come to an agreement on placement
- Give written notice before the change in placement
If a student is moved to a more restrictive placement, the student’s team should have a strategy and plan to return the student to their original placement as soon as possible. This is true whether the student is moved to their own space within the building or moved out of the building completely.
What if a child has a medical or other condition that makes them unable to wear a face mask?
Students who have a medical or behavioral reason for not wearing a face mask should not be made to wear one. The decision about whether a student can’t wear a face mask because of a medical or other condition should be made with the student’s health care provider and school nurse.
If a health care provider says a student is not able to wear a face mask, the school must provide a different way for the student to access their education.
If a student has a hidden disability that makes them unable to wear a face mask, the school may ask for a letter from a doctor stating why the student cannot wear a face mask. The school may only ask for the limited information needed to know why the student is not able to wear a face mask.
Can a student on an IEP or 504 plan be suspended for not complying with COVID-19 safety guidelines?
A student on an Individualized Education Program (IEP) cannot be suspended for more than 10 school days in a school year for not meeting COVID-19 safety guidelines where the inability to meet the guidelines is related to the student’s disability. If a school attempts to suspend a student on an IEP for more than 10 school days in the school year the school must have a meeting within 10 days of when the suspension decision was made. The purpose of the meeting is to determine if the student’s inability to meet the safety standards was related to their disability. This is called a “manifestation determination.”
If the student’s inability to meet COVID-19 safety standards is related to the student’s disability, the school must:
- develop a behavior plan to help the student meet COVID-19 safety standards, OR
- change the student’s current behavior plan to help the student meet COVID-19 safety standards.
A student on a 504 plan has similar protections. However, before a student on a 504 plan can be suspended for more than 10 school days in the school year for not meeting COVID-19 safety guidelines, the school must decide if the suspension results in a change of educational placement and evaluate the student to determine if the student is still eligible for a 504 plan.
If it is determined that the inability to meet COVID-19 safety guidelines is related to the student’s disability, the school may make changes to the student’s 504 plan but is not required to. The school may also make changes to the student’s current behavior plan or develop a new behavior plan.
- Work with school staff and the student’s health care provider to develop strategies to support the student in meeting COVID-19 safety standards.
- Provide clear documentation from the student’s health care provider if the student has a medical or other condition that makes them unable to wear a face covering.
- Understand that we are all dealing with something new and frightening and be willing to work with the school to problem solve to support the student.
Check the Vermont Department of Education website for new and updated guidance documents which are posted periodically.