Schools are being warned that they must continue to meet the needs of students with disabilities — including those at high risk from COVID-19 — as they do away with masking requirements and other pandemic precautions.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona wrote to educators and parents late last week in light of recently updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that has led many schools to drop their mask requirements.

“The department recognizes the difficulties many families have experienced as they strived to balance the need to ensure their child’s physical safety and their child’s need for in-person learning,” Cardona wrote. “As we enter this next phase of pandemic response, we urge schools to lead with equity and inclusion to ensure all students have access to in-person learning alongside their peers.”

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In the letter, Cardona said that schools remain obligated to ensure a safe learning environment for children with disabilities in accordance with their rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. He notes that that many people with disabilities are at higher risk of severe complications from COVID-19, according to the CDC.

“Schools must continue to take action to preserve safe in-person learning opportunities for students with disabilities, including those at high risk of severe outcomes from COVID-19,” reads the letter. “To comply with their federal non-discrimination obligations under Section 504, school districts must make reasonable modifications when necessary to ensure equal access for their students with disabilities, absent a showing that the modifications would constitute a fundamental alteration or undue administrative burden to the program.”

If a parent or any other member of a child’s individualized education program, or IEP, team or Section 504 team believes that any type of COVID-19 prevention strategy is needed in order to ensure a free appropriate public education, the team must consider such measures, Cardona said. If the team agrees, then the strategy needs to be incorporated into the student’s IEP or Section 504 plan.

The letter indicates that any state or local laws, rules, regulations or policies that limit IEP or 504 teams from addressing the health-related needs of students with disabilities violate federal law.

With regard to masking in particular, Cardona said that decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis.

“Depending on the circumstances, a school could decide that some degree of masking of students and staff is necessary as a reasonable modification to ensure that students with disabilities have equal access to in-person learning without incurring an elevated risk of hospitalization or death due to COVID-19,” the letter states. “In addition to deciding that an individual student with specific circumstances or needs must wear a mask or a modified mask such as with a clear front, a school may determine it is also necessary for other individuals in school settings to wear masks, depending on the specific circumstances of the student with a disability and in consideration of relevant health guidance.”

In addition to masks, schools may consider other prevention strategies including vaccination, testing and ventilation, the letter states.

As schools work to meet the needs of students with disabilities, they should not resort to placing them in segregated settings, Cardona said.

“Similarly, schools should be cautious about singling out or identifying students with disabilities as the cause of any perceived burden to avoid stigma and the risk of bullying and must take steps to address any bullying that does occur,” he wrote.