COVID-19 & Online Learning Risks

From Kirsch-Goodwin & Kirsch, Arizona’s Education Lawyers

First, it is important to distinguish between distance learning an online learning.  Not all distance learning is online.  Online learning is learning on the computer; it is one aspect of distance learning.  Distance learning can be on-line – synchronous or recorded – and it can be papers and projects, audio, or anything remote that is not brick-and-mortar.

Risk of on-line instruction revolve around accessibility, mostly for students with visual impairments, hearing impairments, students with ADHD who need reminders to focus, those who are in rural areas with limited or even no computers at home or Wi-Fi.  Remember that the IDEA, 504 and ADA, and Endrew F still apply.  Laws and regulations are not superseded by the pandemic, and schools are obligated to provide a FAPE. 

OSEP provided guidance, informing schools that upon providing distance learning, they must offer equitable access and services to students with disabilities (those with IEPs and those with Section 504 Plans).  As noted in the March 21, 2020 Guidance: “To be clear: ensuring compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

(IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504), and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act should not prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction.”

            On June 25, 2020, the American Academy of Pediatrics (“AAP”) issued interim guidance on school re-entry stating that children learn best when they are in school and that “all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school,” unless local public health mandates otherwise, or because of an individual student’s unique medical needs.   AAP states that learning at home is not as effective as learning in a school, will lead to learning gaps, socialization aspect, mental & emotional health, risk of effects of isolation.

            On July 23, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the “CDC”) issued a summary of current studies regarding the impact of COVID-19 on children.  In “The Importance of Reopening America’s Schools this Fall The Importance of Reopening America’s Schools this Fall,” the CDC explained the importance of considering the full spectrum of benefits and risks of both in-person and virtual learning options.  Acknowledging parents’ understandable concerns about the safety of their children at school in the wake of COVID-19, the CDC stated that the best available evidence indicates if children become infected, they are far less likely to suffer severe symptoms as death rates among school-aged children are much lower than among adults.  At the same time, the CDC warned, the harms that have been attributed to closed schools on the social, emotional, and behavioral health, economic well-being, and academic achievement of children, in both the short- and long-term, are well-known and

significant.  Finally, the lack of in-person educational options disproportionately harms low-income and minority children and those living with disabilities as they are far less likely to have access to private instruction and care and far more likely to rely on key school-supported resources like food programs, special education services, counseling, and after-school programs to meet basic developmental needs.  Aside from a child’s home, no other setting has more influence on a child’s health and well-being than their school.  The CDC explains that the in-person school environment is critical to providing: