A Few Parents Have Sued Over Special Education During COVID-19. Will More Follow?

Monday, July 13, 2020 - 2:30pm

When schools closed this spring to curb the spread of coronavirus, special education administrators feared the risk of complaints—and potential legal action—from parents and disability rights advocates for running afoul of federal civil rights laws.

Stressed over concerns that they'd be swamped with lawsuits if they could not offer a comparable education for all students, including those with disabilities, some districts were even initially reluctant to offer any online learning.

Thus far, those fears have not come to fruition. Families, teacher unions and special education advocates in just three states, HawaiiIllinois, and Pennsylvania, have filed federal lawsuits on behalf of students who are allegedly being shortchanged special education services.EW_Perry_Zirkel-150.jpg

During the school shutdowns, a tacit understanding between educators and families likely developed, experts in special education law say: The pandemic upended many Individualized Education Programs, the legal documents that outline what services students with disabilities will receive, making them impractical. Many of the plans required therapy and other supports that simply couldn't be rendered, at least effectively, during distance learning.

Perry Zirkel, a professor of education and law at the Lehigh University College of Education, who blogs about special education law and tracks special education disputes, has found that parents in fewer than 10 states have filed formal complaints with their state departments of education or individual school districts that would trigger investigations or due-process hearings.

But the legal landscape could shift when classes resume this summer and fall if schools still cannot deliver the services that students missed out on for months, experts in special education law told Education Week

Research Focus: 
State and Federal Education Policy
Field of Expertise: 
Education Policy
School Leadership
Special Education