Students with disabilities are entitled to special education services and supports even if they attend school online, the U.S. Department of Education says.

As public virtual schools — those that have no physical campus and rely on computers and other telecommunications — proliferate, federal officials say they’re increasingly fielding questions about how the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act applies.

In guidance issued this week, the Education Department said these new educational offerings share many of the same responsibilities as their traditional counterparts when serving elementary through high school students with disabilities. That includes obligations to make certain that kids needing special education services are identified, evaluated, provided an individualized education program and served in the least restrictive environment.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

“Children with disabilities attending virtual schools have the same right to a free appropriate public education as children attending brick and mortar schools,” said Sue Swenson, acting assistant secretary for the Education Department’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. “States and school districts must ensure that children with disabilities are getting the special education and supports that they need to be successful in school.”

Given the lack of face-to-face interaction between teachers and students taking classes online, federal officials acknowledged that there may be “unique challenges” in identifying students in need of services.

Nonetheless, the guidance indicates that the “educational rights and protections afforded to children with disabilities and their parents under IDEA must not be diminished or compromised” when they attend public virtual schools.

Read more stories like this one. Sign up for Disability Scoop's free email newsletter to get the latest developmental disability news sent straight to your inbox.