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DeVos Issues Coronavirus Guidance to Schools on Testing, Privacy, Students With Disabilities

By Evie Blad — March 12, 2020 4 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos issued guidance for schools on issues related to the new coronavirus Thursday, addressing concerns student data privacy, testing schedules, students with disabilities, and accountability under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The department does not generally grant waivers from state testing requirements, the guidance says, but it may consider them for areas heavily affected by COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.

“In cases where a school has been closed for a period of time, the assessment results still provide useful information about where individual students and groups of students will need support in the following school year,” the document says. “However, due to the unique circumstances that may arise as a result of COVID-19, such as a school closing during the entire testing window, it may not be feasible for a State to administer some or all of its assessments, in which case the Department would consider a targeted one-year waiver of the assessment requirements for those schools impacted by the extraordinary circumstances.”

The new guidance came as governors in Kentucky, Ohio, and Maryland called for closures of all schools in their states. And districts around the country closed schools to clean and stop the spread of the virus.

DeVos and senior Education Department officials held a call with state schools chiefs to discuss issues covered by the documents Thursday, according to a readout from the department. Officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Federal Communications Commission joined the call to discuss issues related to digital communication and waivers from school meal restrictions, and an official with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discussed school closings and cleanings, the readout said.

See: Education Week’s Map of Coronavirus and School Closures

Under pressure from lawmakers who said schools lacked clarity about how to address the spread of the illness, DeVos and other department officials had promised further directions to school officials. Thursday’s guidance joins directions previously issued by the CDC about issues like cleaning buildings and hand-washing.

But school administrators have said the virus has created a myriad of challenges beyond public health concerns: how to continue educational offerings in the event of a school closure, how to meet the needs of various student populations such as those with special health considerations, and how to work with other agencies that are seeking to slow the illness the World Health Organization has labeled a pandemic.

“We are working closely with our inter-agency partners to provide state and local leaders the information they need to ensure the health and safety of their students and educators,” DeVos said in a statement, pledging to post additional guidance documents on the Education Department’s coronavirus response page in coming days. “We will continue to work alongside them and provide them the flexibilities they need in order to best support their communities.”

Here’s what the new guidance includes:

• A Factsheet on the Impact of COVID-19 on Assessments and Accountability under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act addresses a range of concerns about how extended school cancellations and absences may affect school accountability.

In addition to the possibility of waiving testing requirements, the Education Department may consider a targeted waiver for schools that don’t meet the minimum student participation rate of 95 percent in state tests, the guidance says.

And the department will also consider targeted waivers for schools that see high rates of chronic absenteeism related to the coronavirus. Thirty-six states and the District of Columbia include chronic absenteeism as a school quality indicator in their ESSA plans.

• Guidance on the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, outlines how schools can honor their obligations to student privacy while communicating with the public about COVID-19 or while sharing information with health agencies that are working to track its spread.

“Through information sharing and coordination with public health departments, educational agencies and institutions can help protect their schools and communities,” that document says.

Parents must provide consent before schools can release any personably identifiable student information publicly, it cautions, but some educational records and health data kept by schools may be released to relevant health agencies under FERPA’s health or safety emergency exception.

• Guidance on Students with Disabilities and the Coronavirus reminds schools that, if they “continue to provide educational opportunities to the general student population during a school closure” through activities like distance learning and online programs, they they must ensure that students with disabilities also have equal access to the same opportunities.

That guidance, which mirrors a directive the department previously released related the the H1N1 virus, also urges that homebound services and individualized education plan meetings may be required for medically fragile students who stay home to avoid getting ill.