Education Department Says Virginia School District's COVID Closures Hurt Disabled Students

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December 2, 2022

A Virginia school district’s COVID closure discriminated against disabled students, the Department of Education announced Wednesday.

According to the department’s Office for Civil Rights, Fairfax County Public Schools cut essential services for its 25,000 disabled students and told teachers they did not have to meet educational standards while schools were closed. The district instructed teachers to pass students who had not completed work or participated in class throughout the yearlong closure that began in March 2020.

Fairfax County was one of many school districts in liberal counties that kept classrooms closed for over a year, even as evidence showed it was safe to resume in-person instruction. One school board member dismissed a parent coalition that pushed to open classrooms as a Republican "dark money" operation. The Department of Education reported this year that school closures caused students’ math and reading scores to plummet.

The Education Department launched its investigation in January 2021, after parents filed complaints alleging Fairfax County Public Schools denied disabled students an adequate education in violation of federal civil rights law. Among other findings, the investigation revealed the district slashed instructional hours and services like speech therapy. The district also slashed class length, with some classes meeting for just a few hours each month.

The Education Department concluded that Fairfax County Public Schools have yet to provide remedial services to students who fell behind during the pandemic. Fairfax County agreed to review its educational plans for disabled students and notify parents if their child qualifies for a "compensatory education" plan to address learning loss. The county must submit periodic reports to the Education Department’s civil rights office documenting the effort.

A November 2020 study conducted by the district found a 19 percent increase of students with disabilities who failed two or more classes in the first quarter of the 2020-21 school year—twice that of the previous year.

Maureen Barlow, a mother of a disabled Fairfax student, told the Washington Free Beacon that her son entered second grade at a kindergarten reading level. Barlow said she had to hire a private tutor when the school cut back on specialized instruction.

"I can’t monitor three children, and work, and help my child who has a reading delay," Barlow said. "I’m a single mom, and it was all on me."

An administrator interviewed by the Education Department said Fairfax made "a good faith effort" to educate students with disabilities in light of the circumstances. Superintendent Michelle Reid echoed that assessment in a Wednesday statement, saying "FCPS has and will continue to leverage resources to ensure students with the greatest need receive prioritized support for enhanced outcomes."

But the department discovered administrators coached faculty to deny responsibility when parents questioned them about learning losses. "We didn’t fail. Schools were closed," an administrator told teachers during a webinar. "It wasn’t something that [Fairfax County Public Schools] did on purpose by closing its schools."

Barlow said county administrators and school board members were more blunt with her, saying her child was not owed by law the same quality education after COVID hit.

Fairfax County was one of seven counties that sued Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R.) in February to keep students masked at school. School administrators have used COVID relief funds to provide more virtual learning for students, frustrating parents who believed schools were already not doing enough to move on from the failures of remote education.

Parents have also expressed frustration at the Fairfax County School Board increasingly prioritizing a liberal political agenda, including changes to its handbooks, teacher trainings, and curricula that promote radical gender ideology.