A New York federal district court recently dismissed a class action lawsuit alleging every school district in the country conspired to deny services to special education students during the COVID-19 pandemic. The court concluded it lacked authority to consider claims about districts outside of New York, and even claims subject to review had to go through the local administrative process first.
In this much-talked-about complaint, a group of parents claimed that all school districts in the United States violated special education law by ending in-person instruction due to the pandemic. They further contended the districts conspired to commit fraud by taking federal funds for special education services they never intended to provide. Chief Judge Colleen McMahon dismissed this theory outright, noting the pandemic took the entire world by surprise, and conspiracy or fraud claims were completely implausible. The court further explained that remote learning does not constitute a change of placement under guidance from the federal Department of Education. Systemic decisions affecting all students do not implicate special education regulations, the court emphasized, and parental consent, accordingly, is not required to implement virtual or remote learning. The court allowed students to pursue individual complaints against their school districts, but noted that parents must follow their state’s administrative process in pursuing such claims.
Not only is this holding an important win for school districts, the decision also forecasts how other courts and agencies may analyze future special education claims arising from COVID-19 closures. Nevertheless, school administrators should keep in mind that special education students are entitled to a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”) regardless of whether districts determine to provide instruction to all students remotely or in-person. No coronavirus-related exemptions are available for deadlines prescribed by special education law, for example, and school districts must be careful to complete evaluations and annual reviews in a timely manner. Although documenting FAPE is always important, a detailed record of specially-designed instruction and related services is even more critical during these uncertain times. Providing special education services might look different in 2020, but school districts remain obligated to offer FAPE and comply with all IEP requirements.
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