Alexandria, VA

This is a sponsored column by attorneys John Berry and Kimberly Berry of Berry & Berry, PLLC, an employment and labor law firm located in Northern Virginia that specializes in federal employee, security clearance, retirement and private sector employee matters.

By John V. Berry, Esq.

The pending decisions by the Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) and Arlington County Public Schools (APS) about in-person instruction in the fall due to the COVID-19 pandemic have been an important issue for many individuals in Northern Virginia.

A number of families recently filed a complaint against FCPS on May 8, 2020, alleging a systemic lack of instruction given to Fairfax students with disabilities or special education needs. The complaint appears to be one of the first complaints on behalf of special needs students affected by online instruction and the pandemic. A federal class action was recently filed in court alleging similar issues against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in a recent lawsuit.

The Recent FCPS Issues and Complaint

Given recent news, Governor Ralph Northam is re-opening public schools in the fall, leaving significant discretion to counties. Individual counties will have significant flexibility in re-opening their schools.

Those families with special education needs and Individual Education Plans (commonly known as IEPs) are especially concerned. These students are substantially more affected than other students due to the lack of in-person instruction in schools. As a result, Fairfax County families filed a complaint against FCPS with the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE), alleging a failure to provide equal learning opportunities to students with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some of the examples cited in the May 8, 2020 complaint included requiring special education students to follow online classes for only portions of the day. Many students, given their disabilities, were unable to do so. Other students with disabilities were allegedly told that their specialized instruction would only begin when in-person school re-opens.

Federal Law Requires Protection of Those with Disabilities

There are several laws that protect students with disabilities. Principal among these is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C.§ 1400. Pursuant to federal law, children with learning disabilities must receive specialized instruction in order to provide them with a level playing field with those that do not suffer from such disabilities.

IDEA is a law that makes available a free appropriate public education to eligible children with disabilities throughout the nation and ensures special education and related services to those children. IDEA governs how states and public government agencies provide early intervention, special education, and related services to the almost seven million eligible children with disabilities.

However, according to the complaint the problem has been that FCPS was allegedly “pausing” such education until schools physically re-opened. As of this writing, there were at least three federal court cases filed in different jurisdictions nationally against other school systems regarding the lack of specialized instruction for special education students under IDEA. Further delays or curtailing of in-person special education may lead to additional lawsuits.

Difficulties Faced by Those with Learning Disabilities and Online Education

Families in the complaint have alleged that FCPS left children behind that need special education instruction behind due to the lack of in-person education. Many of the students involved in the complaint against FCPS have autism and dyslexia. While it is undoubtedly difficult for FCPS to have maneuvered these issues in March or April, there is hope that FCPS will strive to provide in-person education for healthy students, with proper protections, for those with special educational needs.

According to one of the parents of a child in the complaint, FCPS requested a delay in responding to parents’ complaint until June 11, 2020, which was granted. However, FCPS may have submitted their response past the business hours deadline on June 11, 2020. It is unknown whether VDOE will accept an after-hours response as of this writing.

Conclusion

Findings in the complaint by VDOE are due on July 7, 2020, unless further delays occur. Hopefully, FCPS, APS and other school systems will address the needs of affected special needs students. If interested in the complaint process or for more information, parents can contact VDOE here.

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