During this national period of quarantine due to the novel coronavirus, many US schools have instituted distance learning programs that allow students to continue their education at home. This change should prevent students from losing important academic skills—for example, in reading and math—and ensure that they are prepared to advance to the following grade in the fall.

Last week, Senator Lamar Alexander stated that the Department of Education should consider allowing states to choose not to educate students with disabilities during the quarantine. Specifically, he proposed that the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) issue waivers to states that would allow them not to comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) for one year.

However, the IDEA does not permit them the authority to waive these requirements. Therefore, some Republican leaders in Congress are trying to get language in the upcoming COVID-19 relief package that would ask the Department of Education to send a report to Congress listing waivers they would like the authority to grant.

The American Foundation for the Blind strongly opposes any efforts to undermine the rights of students with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Like their peers without disabilities, students with disabilities need to retain important academic skills, such as reading and math, so that they don’t fall behind and are ready to pick up their education where they left off. For students with visual impairments, access to academic subjects often requires the use of braille, assistive technology, and alternative teaching methods. In addition, there are specialized skills that students with visual impairments need to develop such as how to use their remaining vision efficiently, how to travel safely in the environment (orientation and mobility), and how to use specialized technology such as screen reading software that allow them to access the curriculum. Students with disabilities already face many barriers to education, such as low expectations and inaccessibility. Allowing states to choose not to educate these students during this time will only widen that gap and put students with disabilities at an even more significant disadvantage to achieving academic success and eventually entering the workforce.

On Friday, March 20, AFB submitted a letter to OSERS asserting that students with disabilities must have access to the same opportunities as other students during this crisis. The letter was co-signed by the American Council of the Blind, American Printing House for the Blind, Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired, Council for Exceptional Children Division of Visual Impairments and Deafblindness, National Organization for Albinism for Hypopigmentation, and the Perkins School for the Blind.

Furthermore, AFB has signed onto a letter with the American Council of the Blind to key leaders in the Senate and the House of Representatives, expressing concern about any legislation or regulations that would allow the Department of Education to waive the civil rights protections of students with disabilities. AFB’s public policy staff are also working to set up remote meetings with staff from these and other Congressional offices to discuss our concerns.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, AFB will remain vigilant about protecting the rights of blind and low vision people. We are committed to ensuring that civil rights are not rolled back and that access to information, education, coronavirus testing, and all other necessary services is available to the blind and low vision community.

Read AFB’s letter to the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services.

Read AFB’s joint letter with ACB regarding the COVID-19 package.

See also: Accessible Education Resources

Take Action

Please note that the coronavirus aid bill has now passed.

The American Foundation for the Blind urges you to contact these four critical Congressional offices to express your opposition to any legislation that weakens the rights of students with disabilities to receive educational services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sample script:

  • Good morning, my name is _____. I live in ______.
  • I am calling to express my opposition to any attempts by Congress or the Department of Education that weaken the rights of students with disabilities to receive educational services during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
  • Just as all kids do, students with disabilities need to maintain their reading and math skills so that they don’t fall behind and they can advance into the next grade in the fall. They also need continued instruction in braille, technology, independent living skills, and orientation and mobility instruction.
  • Ignoring the needs of students with disabilities will only lead to them falling behind academically, less likely to graduate, and less likely to have the academic and life skills necessary to find employment. Education is critical for all children.

Contact Information:

US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions
Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee)
Phone: (202) 224-4944
Email: www.alexander.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/email

Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-Washington)
Toll Free: (866) 481-9186
Email: www.murray.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/contactme

US House Committee on Education and Labor
Chairman Bobby Scott (D-Virginia)
Phone: (202) 225-8351
Email (only accepts emails from his district): bobbyscott.house.gov/zip-code-lookup?form=/contact/email-me

Ranking Member Virginia Foxx (R-North Carolina)
Phone: (202) 225-2071
Email (only accepts emails from her district): foxx.house.gov/connect/