With schools across the nation increasingly eyeing a return to normalcy, federal education officials are further clarifying what that should mean for students with disabilities.

In a 23-page question-and-answer document, the U.S. Department of Education is laying out how the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and other civil rights laws apply as schools return to in-person learning.

The guidance addresses schools’ responsibilities to students with disabilities in remote, hybrid and in-person situations, touching on everything from the right to a free appropriate public education to handling children who are unable to wear masks or maintain social distance.

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The Education Department said the document is meant to help students, families, schools and the public. It contains information on K-12 schools as well as postsecondary institutions.

Notably, the guidance indicates that schools can consider a student’s disability when prioritizing who should access in-person learning first, but state, school district or school policies that limit services for those with disabilities without regard for an individual student’s needs are not allowed. Meanwhile, if schools use cohorts or pods to minimize interactions, “students with disabilities must be included with their nondisabled peers to the maximum extent appropriate for their needs,” the Education Department said.

Students who are unable to wear a mask or physically distance because of their disabilities should not be disciplined for failing to follow these new safety procedures, according to the guidance.

One topic not specifically addressed in the new Q&A document is compensatory education, which is likely to become an increasingly significant issue as the fallout from more limited education services for students with disabilities during the pandemic becomes more apparent.

“The department is aware of important questions regarding compensatory services for students with disabilities and plans to address those in a separate guidance document,” the Education Department indicated.

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