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FCPS failed to support students with disabilities during remote learning, federal investigation finds

Fairfax County Public Schools (file photo)

Fairfax County Public Schools failed to give needed educational services to “thousands” of students with disabilities when it pivoted to virtual learning due to COVID-19 in 2020, federal officials say.

FCPS must compensate all affected students for the lost services as part of an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education, which was investigating reports that the school system had violated students’ right to a free, appropriate public education (FAPE).

“I am relieved that the more than 25,000 students with disabilities in Fairfax County will now receive services federal law promises to them, even during a pandemic, to ensure their equal access to education,” Education Department Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon said in a news release announcing the agreement yesterday.

FCPS said in a statement that it will convene meetings with all current and former students who attended during the “pandemic period” from April 14, 2020 to June 16, 2022 to discuss their Individualized Education Program (IEP) and Section 504 plans.

IEPs are written plans that establish services and academic goals for students in special education. Section 504 prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in programs that get federal funding and requires public school districts to provide a FAPE.

The education department’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) opened investigations into FCPS and districts in Indiana, Seattle and Los Angeles in January 2021, citing local news reports where parents said schools delayed or neglected to deliver the specialized services their kids need.

While acknowledging the pandemic’s “unique challenges,” which prompted widespread school closures in an effort to limit Covid’s spread, OCR says that doesn’t relieve schools of their responsibility to educate students in accordance with their specific needs.

After going fully virtual in spring 2020, FCPS started reintroducing in-person classes that October, but it didn’t bring back all students, five days a week, until August 2021.

Though FCPS attempted to address learning losses with expanded summer programs, OCR reports that the school system “inappropriately reduced and limited services” to students with disabilities, failed to “accurately or sufficiently” track the services it was providing, and “refused even to entertain compensatory education for services it did not or could not provide due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“The evidence strongly suggests that appropriate remedial services still remain unavailable, as a practical matter, to the many thousands of students with disabilities in the Division who may need them,” OCR said in a letter to Superintendent Michelle Reid.

As of this past February, FCPS had only provided recovery services to 1,070 students with IEPs and eight students with Section 504 plans, OCR said. 15.5% of the over 180,000 students who attend FCPS this school year have disabilities, according to state data.

Under the agreement, FCPS must get OCR’s approval for plans to compensate students, appoint an administrator to implement those plans, notify parents and guardians, and develop an electronic system by Jan. 17 to track which students need additional services and what accommodations are provided.

“As we emerge from the global pandemic, FCPS remains committed to working diligently to provide the support needed to ensure each and every student recovers from learning loss,” the school system said. “FCPS has and will continue to leverage resources to ensure students with the greatest need receive prioritized support for enhanced outcomes.”

This isn’t the first criticism FCPS has faced for its treatment of special education students. A lawsuit over its use of seclusion and restraints led to a long-awaited ban on those practices in March, and a report completed in October found that students with disabilities, especially Black and Hispanic students, are disproportionately disciplined.

Parents filed a lawsuit against the Fairfax County School Board and Virginia Department of Education in September, alleging that the hearing process for addressing complaints about IEP plans is biased against families.

Shatter the Silence Fairfax County Public Schools, a nonprofit that says it’s dedicated to fighting abuse, discrimination and sexual harassment, said in a news release that the OCR findings suggest the school system “has a systematic problem with how it treats disabled students,” noting that FCPS has entered into 14 agreements over civil rights complaints since 2014.

“While we applaud OCR for these findings, we express concern that without accountability toward individual administrators, FCPS school bureaucrats will just view this settlement as a ‘slap on the wrist’ and nothing will change,” a Shatter the Silence spokesperson said.

FCPS is currently developing a three-year plan to improve its special education program based on the October review by the consultant American Institute for Research (AIR).

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