Fairfax Co. schools failed to offer sufficient education to thousands with disabilities during pandemic, federal investigation finds

Virginia’s largest school system failed to offer a sufficient education to thousands of students with disabilities during the coronavirus pandemic, a federal investigation into its programing found.

The school system will conduct a review of which students with disabilities didn’t receive adequate instruction, and appoint an administrator to oversee those efforts, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights said.

The investigation found Fairfax County Public Schools failed to provide thousands of kids with services detailed in their Individualized Education Programs and 504 plans during remote learning, or to give them a free, appropriate public education, which is required by federal civil rights law.

The findings paint a dire picture of the services offered during the height of the pandemic, and come nearly two months after a two-year review of the county’s special education program found that students with disabilities are disproportionately suspended. That review, though, evaluated data and trends from before the pandemic.

“I am relieved that the more than 25,000 students with disabilities in Fairfax County will now receive services federal law promises to them, even during a pandemic, to ensure their equal access to education,” said Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon in a statement.

In a statement, Fairfax County Public Schools said it “remains committed to working diligently to provide the support needed to ensure each and every student recovers from learning loss. FCPS has and will continue to leverage resources to ensure students with the greatest need receive prioritized support for enhanced outcomes.”

‘Free appropriate public education’

As the county transitioned to virtual learning, according to the investigation’s findings, the director of the Office of Special Education and Procedural Support said what the school system offered was a “free appropriate public education in light of the circumstances.” That was clarified to mean doing “the best they could to provide what a student needed to receive a FAPE” in a remote learning environment.

Nonetheless, the investigation found the county didn’t, or couldn’t, offer a sufficient education to thousands of students with disabilities. Starting in spring 2020 and continuing the following school year, Fairfax County “categorically reduced and/or limited the services and special education that students were entitled to receive through their IEPs or Section 504 plans.”

Staffing challenges may have also resulted in some students not receiving additional services they’re entitled to, such as summer programming in 2021 and home-based services in 2020.

During the pandemic, according to the investigation, the school system didn’t “sufficiently” track services it did offer to students with disabilities. It also didn’t craft a plan to help students get back on track, and its recovery services fell short of what’s required to remedy the lack of a free appropriate public education.

As of February 2022, 1,070 kids with IEPs and eight students with Section 504 plans received recovery services; the county has more than 25,000 students with disabilities.

The school system has agreed to speak to parents, guardians and students to publicize its plan for compensatory education and provide guidance or training about the plan to division staff, according to a news release.

As part of its broad review of the special education program, the county is working to implement a special education enhancement plan, with annual updates expected to be presented to the community.

Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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