U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights Releases New Resources on Students with Disabilities (February 21, 2024)

On February 20, 2024, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) released four new resources with information for students, parents and families, and schools addressing civil rights of students with disabilities, as well as a data snapshot about education access for students with disabilities drawn from OCR’s 2020-21 Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC).

OCR issued these new resources to inform students with disabilities, and their families and schools, about their legal rights under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Section 504 prohibits discrimination against students with disabilities by institutions that accept federal financial assistance, which includes almost all public schools and public and private institutions of higher education.

“We issued these new resources to give students, including those with asthma, diabetes, food allergies, and GERD, as well as their families and schools, important tools to understand when and how they are protected by federal disability rights laws,” said Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine E. Lhamon.

OCR’s new CRDC data snapshot reports that 8.4 million students with disabilities accounted for 17% of the overall public school enrollment in the 2020-21 school year, the most recent school year for which the Department has civil rights data. Three percent (1.6 million) of the overall student enrollment were students with disabilities who received educational aids and services under Section 504 only. 

The Department’s National Center for Education Statistics estimates that students with disabilities accounted for 21% of undergraduates and 11% of postbaccalaureate students in the 2019-20 school year.

The four new resources address common medical conditions that can be disabilities for purposes of Section 504: asthma, diabetes, food allergies, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). These resources, which are applicable to all levels of education, explain when these medical conditions trigger protections under Section 504, what kind of modifications an educational institution may need to take to avoid unlawful discrimination, and what an institution may need to do to remedy past discrimination.

OCR also released a new CRDC data snapshot profiling educational opportunities provided to public school students with disabilities during the 2020-21 school year. It reflects troubling differences in the experiences of students with disabilities compared to their non-disabled peers. For example, higher percentages of students with disabilities were physically restrained or secluded than students without disabilities.

Students with disabilities were also overrepresented in disciplinary actions when compared to their total student enrollment. And students with disabilities were underrepresented in Advanced Placement courses, gifted and talented programs, and dual enrollment or dual credit programs.

The new resources regarding asthma, diabetes, food allergies, and GERD are available on the OCR website. The new CRDC disability snapshot, and other CRDC data reports and snapshots, are available on the CRDC website.

CDC May End Five-day COVID Isolation Recommendation (February 21, 2024)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is considering the possibility of loosening the five-day COVID-19 isolation guidance that many school systems have been using to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus. According to K-12 Dive, the isolation guidance is under review by the CDC with the possibility of revising them to align those recommendations with those used for the flu and RSV.

That would mean that people who have tested positive could return to school and work once they are without fever for at least 24 hours without taking medication and their symptoms are mild and improving. It is believed that such new guidance would help schools to address pervasive student absenteeism exacerbated by the pandemic and which has affected academic performance.

For more from K-12 Dive, click here.

Rep. Wild Voices Concerns Over Delayed FAFSA Rollout, Asks USDE for Answers (February 18, 2024)

US Representative Susan Wild form Pennsylvania, a member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, along with 70 of her colleagues, voiced her concerns on the delayed rollout of this year’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). In their letter, the members of Congress also requested the US Department of Education (USDE) provide answers to questions raised by families and students across the nation and clarity on the timeline.

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“For many students in our community and across the country, the FAFSA is the first step to make higher education more affordable and accessible,” said Congresswoman Susan Wild. “I’ve heard from families and colleges in the Lehigh Valley about the strain FAFSA delays have already had on them, and I’m deeply concerned that additional delays will negatively impact those most in need of aid. I’m urging the USDE to do everything it can to support our students and institutions of higher education.”

In their letter, the lawmakers write, “We write today to ask for more clarity on how the USDE plans to communicate any further delays in FAFSA processing, and how the USDE intends to minimize the potential impact on students and families so they can make the most informed decision possible about their futures, including through providing prompt, clear timelines.”

Approximately 17 million students fill out the FAFSA each year. As a result of the FAFSA Simplification Act, which was signed into law in 2021, the USDE streamlined the application process and updated formulas used to assess students’ financial need. The USDE estimates that these updates will allow 1.5 million more students from low-income backgrounds to be eligible for the maximum Pell Grant award.

Read the full letter here.

USDE to Ease 2024 FAFSA Verification Requirements (February 14, 2024)

On February 13, 2024, the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) announced that it will reduce 2024 verification requirements for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in order to get applications to high school students as soon as possible.

Citing the problematic release of the updated FAFSA form, the temporary changes in procedure are intended to make it easier for colleges to process student records and issue financial aid offers during what has become a much tighter timeline.

Thus, the USDE will require colleges to verify fewer FAFSA applications and has also averred that the majority of income data is obtained from the IRS and does not require verification.

USDE has also stated that it will provide deadline flexibility for colleges that need to re-certify their eligibility for receiving federal financial aid.

Source: K-12 Dive.

PDE Seeks Sponsors For Summer Meals Programs (February 2, 2024)

On January 31, 2024, the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) announced that it is encouraging organizations across the state to help provide nutritious meals to children in low-income areas during the summer months through PDE’s Summer Food Service Program. New sponsors must apply by May 1, 2024.

Last summer, more than 200 organizations provided nutritious meals to children at approximately 1,750 locations throughout the state. However, to reach more children and narrow the hunger gap that summer may bring, more organizations and meal sites are needed throughout the state, especially in rural areas.

Participating organizations are reimbursed for meals served to children who live in areas in which at least 50 percent of the children qualify for free or reduced-price meals under the National School Lunch Program. 

Participating organizations must be year-round, not-for-profit entities, which include schools, local, municipal or county governments, libraries, churches, fire and police stations, residential summer camps, and national youth sports programs. Organizations approved to sponsor the Summer Food Service Program are responsible for managing the meal service sites that provide the meals to children. Beginning this summer, organizations serving rural areas may be approved to provide non-congregate meals, such as grab and go meals or delivered meals, to children in qualifying areas.

Most participating organizations may be reimbursed for up to two meals a day: lunch or dinner, and breakfast or a snack. Those serving primarily migrant children may be reimbursed for up to three meals a day. Camps may serve up to three meals a day, but they are reimbursed only for meals served to children eligible for free or reduced-price meals under the National School Lunch Program. 

The Summer Food Service Program, which began in 1976, is a federally funded child nutrition program designed to reach those who are age 18 or younger in economically disadvantaged areas. People over 18 who are mentally or physically handicapped and participate in public or nonprofit private programs established for the disabled are also able to receive free meals at the Summer Food Service Program sites. 

For more information on becoming a participating organization or a meal site for the summer Food Service Program, view the website at www.education.pa.gov/sfsp or call 800.331.0129.

In accordance with federal civil rights law and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) civil rights regulations and policies, this institution is prohibited from discriminating on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex (including gender identity and sexual orientation), disability, age, or reprisal or retaliation for prior civil rights activity.

Program information may be made available in languages other than English. Persons with disabilities who require alternative means of communication to obtain program information (e.g., Braille, large print, audiotape, American Sign Language), should contact the responsible state or local agency that administers the program or USDA’s TARGET Center at (202) 720-2600 (voice and TTY) or contact USDA through the Federal Relay Service at (800) 877-8339.