As school districts consider the potential for school closures related to COVID-19, many are grappling with issues regarding continuity of learning; how to satisfy the state law requirement that each school district make a minimum of 180 school days available to students each school year; and considerations related to special education. Determining how to approach these issues requires consideration of guidance from all relevant public health and education officials, as well as an analysis of how long a school closure may last; how, and whether, instruction can be made available to all students on an equal basis through a distance learning platform; any impacts on employees and collective bargaining agreements; and compliance with applicable state and federal laws and policies.
New State Guidance
On March 9, 2020, the Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE) issued specific guidance to school districts addressing continuity of learning and the 180-school-day requirement in the event of school closures related to COVID-19. This guidance, which has not been posted on CSDE’s website, supplements guidance issued by CSDE and the Connecticut Department of Administrative Services on March 6, 2020 (available at https://portal.ct.gov/-/media/SDE/Digest/2019-20/March-2020-State-Department-of-Education-Covid19-Guidance.pdf and https://portal.ct.gov/-/media/SDE/2020_COVID-19_Green_Cleaning_Guidance_for_State_Buildings_and_Public_Schools.pdf). In addition, on March 5, 2020, the Connecticut Commission for Educational Technology (CCET) published “Guidance for Resources for Remote Learning” to assist school districts that may wish to “develop plans that leverage technology to support educational continuity” (available at https://portal.ct.gov/-/media/DAS/CTEdTech/documents/CET_Continuity_of_Learning-3-5-20.pdf). Here are several key takeaways from the state’s latest guidance:
- School Closures
The decision to close schools remains at the local level; however, if Connecticut experiences widespread sustained community transmission, decisions regarding extended school closures may be made at the direction of the Office of the Governor with input from CSDE, the Connecticut Department of Public Health (DPH), and the Connecticut Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection. CSDE advises school districts to consult with local municipal public health officials in determining whether closure is appropriate and indicates that the DPH and CSDE “will be prepared to support decision making.” CSDE further advises school districts to “make decisions based first and foremost on the safety and well-being of students, staff and the entire school community.”
- Distance Learning
For short term closures (up to two weeks): CSDE recommends that school districts “[c]lose school outright” with no distance learning in lieu of onsite schooling to “avoid inequities, staff contractual issues, special education access, etc.” CSDE further recommends that school districts make up school days during school closures of up to two weeks during vacations and/or in June.
Distance learning in lieu of onsite schooling remains an option. However, such distance learning will count toward the 180-school-day requirement only if approved by the Connecticut State Board of Education (CSBE) upon consideration of a COVID-19 waiver request. CSDE cautions school districts to “consider applicable state and federal laws and policies, including but not limited to employment laws, collective bargaining considerations, and special education” in deciding whether to adopt a distance learning model. It is clear that school districts must assume all risks associated with distance learning in order to qualify for a distance learning waiver from CSBE. School districts should stand ready to certify compliance with all applicable laws and policies should they wish to seek a waiver related to distance learning.
For longer-term closures and/or state and federal orders: CSDE advises that school closures extending past two weeks will be addressed on a case-by-case basis.
Resources for distance learning: CCET recommends that, in developing plans for educational continuity during any period of school closure, school districts evaluate staff and student preparedness to engage in distance learning. CCET further advises that school districts assess their already-existing technology platform and the tools with which students and staff are familiar to ease any transition to learning remotely. CCET’s guidance also provides a list of resources to assist public school leaders in planning for any distance learning.
CSDE reminds school districts that CSBE may grant waivers to school districts concerning the 180-school-day requirement in cases of “unavoidable emergency.” To request a waiver, school districts must submit the following documents to the Commissioner of Education for the CSBE’s consideration:
- A completed COVID-19 Waiver Application Form.
- Written correspondence signed by the Superintendent and school district board chairperson requesting the waiver, as follows:
Distance learning: A statement “attesting that the district has considered all risks and factors, and is complying with, applicable state and federal laws and policies, including but not limited to employment laws, collective bargaining agreements, and special education.”
School closure and no distance learning: A statement “attesting that the district has exhausted all opportunities to provide 180 days of school, including extension of the school year to June 30, 2020.”
- Written confirmation from the local public health director or district health department director that they recommend/ed closure of the school or school(s). CSDE describes this documentation as “advisable.”
CSDE advises school districts to consider directives made to state agencies by the Governor in considering district planning for large events with 100 or more attendees, such as athletic events, plays, concerts, and field trips. CSDE’s guidance summarizes the Governor’s guidance to state agencies as of March 9, 2020.
Special Education Considerations
As school districts prepare for possible school closures, they must take care to develop appropriate plans for meeting the needs of students with disabilities. Here are several key considerations for such planning:
- School Closures Without Distance Learning and General Considerations
When a school district closes and does not offer distance learning in lieu of onsite schooling, it is generally not required to provide special education and related services to students. Moreover, as noted above, CSDE’s March 9 guidance recommends that school districts refrain from offering distance learning during short-term closures to avoid, among other issues, inequities and concerns related to special education access.
CSDE’s March 6 guidance recommends that school districts communicate with families and outside service providers regarding Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) prior to, during, and after any school closure. The guidance also reminds school districts that, even in the event of any school closure, they “remain responsible for the free appropriate public education (FAPE) for students.” The United States Department of Education (USDE) issued guidance in December of 2009 during the H1N1 outbreak advising school districts to determine, on a case-by-case basis, whether any further services to students with disabilities would be needed to regain skills lost due to the pause in educational services (available at https://www2.ed.gov/policy/speced/guid/idea/h1n1-idea-qa.pdf). News reports suggest that USDE is working to update this guidance in light of COVID-19, although at this time we do not know when the updated guidance will be issued.
- School Closures With Distance Learning
CSDE’s March 9 guidance cautions school districts that intend to require students to participate in distance learning in lieu of onsite schooling that they must comply with federal and state laws and policies, including, but not limited to, those related to special education. School districts intending to have distance learning days count toward the 180-school-day requirement must carefully review compliance with requirements for access, equity, and FAPE. Compliance issues may include, without limitation:
- provision of specialized instruction, including the frequency and description of instructional delivery;
- provision of related services, including the frequency and description of instructional delivery;
- implementation of behavior intervention plans and/or behavioral goals and objectives;
- implementation of accommodations and modifications;
- compliance with special education initial evaluation timelines; and
- compliance with annual review and related timelines.
CSDE’s March 9 guidance notes that the guidance “is subject to change as the situation changes in Connecticut” and acknowledges that updates may be warranted by “rapidly changing circumstances.” These are important reminders that school districts should continue to monitor evolving information, guidance, and directives issued by all relevant public health and education officials and prepare to adapt to any changes as they arise.