Key Reminders on Student Enrollment, Discipline, Records, and Special Education During School Closures
As the issues related to the mandated school closures in response to the COVID-19 crisis continue to rapidly evolve, the Governor extended the closure through April 7, and in all likelihood, Illinois schools will remain closed beyond that date as well. While schools remain closed, several student-related issues may need to be addressed, particularly as we see a shift from Act of God days to remote or e-learning days. We flag a few of these issues here, including student discipline, special education, enrollment and fee waiver applications, and student records.
Keep in mind that even though students may not be physically present at school, student misconduct may occur through remote or e-learning platforms, and if it does, the district’s student code of conduct and policies regarding discipline still apply. Most districts have language in their discipline policy providing for application of the rules to conduct, wherever it occurs, that disrupts or adversely affects the school environment or operations. Therefore, if student misconduct occurs during a virtual class meeting or otherwise interferes with the continuing educational opportunities provided by the district, continue to follow your policies accordingly. Consider reminding students and parents of conduct expectations while students are engaged in remote learning. And think through what consequences may be meaningful and feasible during this time.
Enrollment and Fee Waiver Applications
In terms of enrollment obligations, ISBE has taken the position that school districts must continue to enroll students during the mandatory school closure. The requirements extend to any new student, immigrant student, or student experiencing homelessness. Districts should also be mindful of students and families who may be unable to afford school fees and need to apply for fee waivers. Even during school closures, schools should continue to process these waiver requests immediately.
Students experiencing homelessness are a particularly vulnerable population affected by the mandated school closures. To support homeless students during this time, ensure that your school district liaisons are working closely with lead area homeless liaisons to identify services or other agencies that may be helpful resources for families experiencing homelessness. School district liaisons should also be in direct contact with families during school closures to ensure that students have the appropriate materials to complete any assignments, to ensure that families know how to access to available meals, and to serve as a connector to any other assistance that may be available to these families. Although school districts are not required to provide students with meals during the mandated school closures, districts should continue to distribute meals to students where possible. For more information on serving meals to students during school closures, please refer to ISBE’s recent Guidance.
The Illinois School Student Records Act requires school districts to comply with a parent’s or student’s request to inspect and copy records within 10 business days after the receipt of the request. At this time, no authority granting flexibility regarding student record request timelines has been issued. However, requests may be properly extended for an additional five business days from the original due date if, for example, the request cannot be complied with within the 10-day time limit without unduly burdening or interfering with the operations of the school district, which is likely to apply given current school closures and limited staff availability. While student record request timeframes still apply, consider communicating with requesting parties to reach an agreement on potential further extensions. Keep in mind that if records are requested in preparation for an IEP meeting that will proceed virtually, the IDEA requires that records be made available prior to the meeting.
Additional issues may also arise related to maintaining and producing student records during the health crisis, for instance sharing information with health officials and confidentiality during distance learning. For more information on how to comply with the Illinois School Student Records Act and FERPA during distance learning, please refer to our recent alerts regarding FERPA compliance and student records during distance learning.
Special Education Timelines
As we discussed in our previous blog post, because mandated closure days do not count as school days, special education deadlines calculated using school days are postponed. In contrast, at this time, neither ISBE nor the U.S. Department of Education have provided schools flexibility to deviate from special education timelines calculated using calendar days. However, recent legislation passed by the Senate titled the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act gives U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos the power to grant national emergency educational waivers from the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Once passed by the House and signed by the President, the law would also allow Secretary DeVos to appeal to Congress within 30 days after passage if she believes that waivers should be made to provide limited flexibility regarding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). While the fate of any waivers Secretary DeVos might request from Congress is currently unclear, flexibility in the future is possible (though not imminent).
If you have questions regarding these or other student issues during the mandatory school closures, please reach out to any Franczek attorney.