As many students with disabilities return to school in person for the first time in over a year, federal education officials are spelling out what districts nationwide need to do to serve them.

In a letter sent this week to state and local education agencies, the U.S. Department of Education is making clear that despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rights of students under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to a free appropriate public education, or FAPE, have not changed.

“(The Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services) wants to reiterate and emphasize that, notwithstanding these challenges, infants and toddlers with disabilities and their families and children with disabilities retain their rights to receive appropriate services under IDEA,” wrote Katherine Neas, acting assistant secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, and David Cantrell, acting director of the Office of Special Education Programs.

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That means that school-age students with disabilities should have individualized education programs in effect at the start of the school year and plans should be implemented for infants and toddlers with disabilities to receive the services they’re entitled to, the letter indicates.

Federal officials acknowledge in the correspondence that some parents are concerned about sending their children with disabilities back to school in person for health and safety reasons. Accordingly, they say that schools should be utilizing “layered prevention strategies including promoting vaccination and universal and correct mask-wearing.”

The Education Department said it will issue a series of Q&A guidance documents “in the coming weeks and months” on IDEA and school reopening efforts in response to multiple requests from stakeholders for clarification.

“The documents will focus on those topics most closely related to ensuring that, regardless of the COVID-19 pandemic or the mode of instruction, children with disabilities receive FAPE, and that infants and toddlers with disabilities and their families receive early intervention services,” the letter states.

The first of these guidance documents — which was released in tandem with the letter this week — focuses on what’s known as child find, the obligation that states and school districts have under IDEA to identify, locate and evaluate all children with disabilities. The document notes that this task has been more difficult as many children have not registered or have unenrolled from school during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, the Education Department said that states and school districts may need to reconsider whether their existing child find procedures are adequate.

“Serving all children and students with disabilities in our public schools isn’t just written into law — it’s a moral obligation and strong equitable practice,” said Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. “When we recognize and celebrate these differences as strengths, and when we help all children make progress toward challenging educational goals, everyone benefits.”

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