/ Blog Post
By Lauren Wright, Equal Justice Works Marketing & Communications Specialist
The coronavirus pandemic has closed schools and universities worldwide, plunging students, teachers, and parents into the uncharted territories of long-term virtual education. From Zoom kindergarten classes to online dissertation defenses, this public health crisis has forced an abrupt culture shift upon students at all levels. As more schools announce their plans to remain closed through the end of the academic year, we checked in with our education-focused Fellows throughout the country to learn more about the issues their clients are currently facing.
Access to Resources
A 2018 Microsoft study estimated that roughly half of Americans—163 million people—do not have high-speed internet at home. For many students, particularly in rural and low-income communities, the closure of schools and public libraries has limited their access to the tools, resources, and support they need in order to learn.
Lashawnda Woods-Roberts, a 2018 Fellow at the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law & Justice sponsored by an anonymous supporter, advocates for the educational rights of justice-involved youth and students at risk of court involvement. Most of Lashawnda’s clients are foster children, and she is currently working to get them connected with the devices and internet that online education requires. Connectivity, however, is just one of the challenges these students face: over the course of the pandemic, many Georgia youth in foster care have also already experienced multiple foster placement changes, begun building new relationships with unfamiliar custodians, been introduced to new and unconventional digital platforms, and adjusted to carceral environments.
“Children in care often lack the social-emotional support that they so desperately need, and without formal student supports or special education services, many are falling further behind a curve that was already steep,” said Lashawnda. To identify and address systemic barriers to access and services during this pandemic, Lashawnda is coordinating weekly COVID-19 meetings for the Georgia Education Climate Coalition (GECC). During GECC meetings, Georgia leaders come together to discuss access gaps, share solutions and resources available to families, build partnerships to increase education and health services and supports, and create policies to mitigate the compounded harm to at-risk school-aged children resulting from the pandemic.
Even in well-resourced communities, students with disabilities remain unable to access the services necessary to their success. According to 2018 Fellow Tori Porell, who is sponsored by the Morrison & Foerster Foundation and works with the East Bay Children’s Law Offices to serve students in over 50 Bay Area school districts, the move to adapt has been slow in many districts.
“We have heard talk of students being able to receive speech therapy, occupational therapy, or mental health services through telehealth, but I haven’t seen any district roll that out yet,” said Tori. For students with more significant disabilities, who would normally receive services in specially designed classrooms or with the support of one-on-one aides, there is just no way to virtually recreate the necessary environment.
Amanda Glass, a 2018 Fellow sponsored by Greenberg Traurig, LLP, shared that the Arizona Department of Education has issued guidance and resources to school districts regarding the legal obligation to provide special education services during school closures to students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). Along with her host organization, the Arizona Center for Disability Law, Amanda has created resources directed at students and parents about their rights during this time, and continues to advocate for her existing clients to receive the services in their IEPs to the extent that is safe and feasible. Amanda has established an education rights working group with representatives from several other Arizona advocacy organizations, including the ACLU of Arizona, the Arc of Arizona, and the Native American Disability Law Center, among others. This group is collaborating to disseminate information to students and parents about their rights, and is also communicating with the Arizona Department of Education about community concerns related to school closures. The group hopes to team up with the Department on developing and issuing additional resources and guidance on the need for compensatory education for students with IEPs when schools reopen.
In the case of existing school disciplinary measures, the closure of physical campuses has made remediation a lot more complicated.
In California, 2018 Fellow Curtis Davis, who is sponsored by the Morrison & Foerster Foundation, responded to a request from state officials about actions they need to take to protect low-income and otherwise at-risk students from harmful consequences related to school closures during the pandemic. One recommendation that he and a coalition of other advocates have put forward is to place a moratorium on expulsions and instead focus on non-expulsion resolutions. While some school districts have withdrawn expulsion recommendations altogether, others have postponed hearings until schools reopen, or proceeded with telephone or video hearings that Curtis says violate a number of due process rights set forth in the California Education Code.
“Exclusionary discipline practices, such as expulsion, disproportionately impact California’s most at-risk students, such as students of color, students with disabilities, English Language Learners, and foster youth,” said Curtis. The proposed moratorium is intended to create a fair playing field for students of all backgrounds.
At the Juvenile and Children’s Advocacy Project in Houston, Texas, 2018 Fellow Christina Beeler, who is sponsored by Latham & Watkins LLP, is also advocating on behalf of students facing disciplinary action as individual school districts in Texas decide whether or not distance learning days will count against their sentences.
“Suspensions, expulsions, and removals to disciplinary alternative education programs contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline,” said Christina. “I am coordinating with other school advocacy and legal services groups to write a letter to schools encouraging them to commit to counting, reducing, or waiving disciplinary days during COVID-19 school closures so that students have a fresh start when schools reopen.”
We are proud of the work our Fellows are doing to protect the educational rights of students amid the coronavirus pandemic. To learn more about the work of our Equal Justice Works Fellows, visit here.