Federal officials are telling states not to lower expectations for teacher qualifications even as schools struggle to fill openings in special education.

States cannot use temporary or emergency statuses to reduce standards that teachers working with children with disabilities must meet, according to new guidance from the U.S. Department of Education.

In a four-page memo sent to state directors of special education this month, Education Department officials indicated that they’ve seen media reports and heard from states and advocates about policies and procedures that may not comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

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While the guidance acknowledges that states are facing challenges stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, which exacerbated special educator shortages, that’s no reason to lower the bar, officials said.

IDEA requires that both special education teachers and related services providers are “appropriately and adequately prepared and trained,” according to the correspondence.

“Public school special education teachers may not have special education certification or licensure requirements waived on an emergency, temporary, or provisional basis; and must hold at least a bachelor’s degree,” reads the letter from Valerie C. Williams, director of the Education Department’s Office of Special Education Programs.

The rules apply to special education teachers in public elementary, middle and high schools.

There are some exceptions. Charter school teachers are subject to slightly different rules, the memo notes. And, in some cases, individuals who have not obtained state certification as a special education teacher may qualify to teach children with disabilities in public schools if they meet certain requirements and are part of a program providing an alternate route to special education teacher certification.

Related services personnel must also meet all applicable state licensing or certification requirements for their discipline, the guidance indicates, and such standards cannot be waived on an “emergency, temporary, or provisional basis.”

“Paraprofessionals and assistants who are appropriately trained and supervised, in accordance with state law, regulation, or written policy, may be used to assist in the provision of special education and related services to children with disabilities,” Williams wrote.

The memo comes as special educators remain in short supply nationwide. Federal data released late last month indicates that 53% of public schools reported feeling understaffed as the 2022-2023 school year got underway. Among those schools, special education teachers were the most understaffed positions.

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