COVID-19’s Implications on the IDEA

By: Reese Rosental Saporito, Northwestern University

The IDEA, or the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, ensures access to public education and aid in school settings for students with disabilities. Over 7.5 million children depend on this aid.[1] However, students have faced eight months of online learning because of the novel Coronavirus. We must continue to enforce IDEA and adapt it to fit the needs of students with disabilities’ learning in 2020.

The IDEA is the most recent in a series of laws protecting the rights of students with disabilities. In 1975, President Ford signed the Education for all Handicapped Children Act (EHCA) into law, which has developed into what we know today as IDEA.[2] This opened doors for students with disabilities to join their peers in a public school setting. The EHCA outlined that students with disabilities were entitled to appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment possible.[3] Then, in 2004, the IDEA was passed and later amended through the Every Child Succeeds Act (Public Law 114-95) in 2015.[4] The IDEA reflects an enhancement of services and access to aid for children, including transition planning, and holds schools accountable for aiding students with disabilities in succeeding.[5] IDEA intervention services begin at birth, in which children between birth and two years of age receive aid, such as early learning tools. Since 1975, the IDEA has created more inclusive classrooms and environments where students with disabilities can flourish and their rights are protected.[6]

During the COVID-19 pandemic, questions arose on how to adapt these legal protections to affected education environments. In March 2020, The Department of Education, led by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, released a statement about the IDEA accommodations during the pandemic. This statement did not give guidelines on how to enforce the IDEA or how to provide adequate accommodations to students with disabilities.[7] The Department of Education eventually explained government guidelines about teaching students with disabilities during a pandemic in September 2020 through a Q&A released by The Office of Special Education Programs.[8] The Q&A reiterated the importance of IDEA Part B Service Provision, emphasizing that Individualized Education Program (IEP) teams remain responsible for ensuring appropriate public education, regardless of what form of learning is offered for the 2020-2021 school year. According to the document, it is up to these IEP teams to perform a yearly assessment and provide guidance for each student’s accommodations.[9] The Q&A also states that the IEP team is responsible for outlining necessary online and in-person learning accommodations.

Still, IEP teams did not receive guidance on developing an action plan to meet the legal requirements of the IDEA.[10] After an initial IEP, how are schools supposed to develop an adequate plan that fits the legalities outlined in the IDEA? Over the course of a school year, particularly during online learning, a disabled student’s needs may drastically change. If the IEP team has already performed their yearly assessment, how will the student’s accommodations change with their changing needs? In order to create an effective, legally adequate, and beneficial plan for students with disabilities, I believe an IEP assessment should be performed quarterly as opposed to annually. This will enable more regular check-ins, which will likely create a more effective accommodation plan during the pandemic. Since the needs of students with disabilities vary so much, requiring frequent IEP assessments will allow for more individualized solutions to the challenges of online learning.

The IDEA puts statutes in place for students who have specific learning disabilities requiring special education services.[11] Section 504 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act (1973), however, provides accommodations for students with any disability, temporary or long-term, that does not fall under the umbrella of special education. Examples of Section 504 disabilities include temporary physical limitations (broken hand, concussion, etc.), ADD/ADHD, anxiety, depression, etc.[12] 504 accommodations are made in a regular classroom setting as opposed to the IDEA accommodations, which are made in a special education setting.[13] COVID-19 is likely affecting these accommodations just the same as the IDEA accommodations, but there is a more significant issue. The IDEA accommodations include counseling but Section 504 accommodations do not, so 504-eligible students may not be getting the right kind of help.[14]

In my opinion, a new option for 504 accommodations for mental health-related disabilities are campus wellness centers. Gabrielino High School in San Gabriel, California recently installed a wellness center on campus, which serves as a safe space for students struggling with mental health to not only take a break, but also receive counseling to help work through their feelings and struggles.[15] Throughout online learning, Chris Saporito has provided online therapy as the Wellness Center Coordinator for 504 students. This type of accommodation can allow 504 mental health students to leave class for a period of time to get help, while the teachers know their students are supervised and safe. This type of accommodation helps work through emotional problems rather than giving extra time on assignments, for example, which can be helpful in alleviating stress but does not help work through the issues a student is facing.[16]

COVID-19 has created a period of mass uncertainty across the globe, but especially in school settings. Public schools are required under the law to provide reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities to enable success, achievement, and learning without discrimination. What can be done to ensure the legal implementation of these accommodations is adequately meeting the needs of students with disabilities? I propose the legal requirement of quarterly IEPs to ensure students with disabilities are receiving necessary accommodations year-round.

Section 504 eligible students with disabilities also need accommodations, but these can look very different. Section 504 includes all mental health issues, so I believe a both plausible and beneficial accommodation would be legally enforcing the implementation of campus wellness centers. Wellness centers provide therapy and conversations with counselors to work through issues, and have been able to effectively provide therapy virtually during the pandemic. Reasonable accommodations are the law, but online learning has created an unprecedented situation. Reform is needed to provide legally adequate aid to students with disabilities under both the IDEA and Section 504 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act.

[1] About IDEA, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, (last visited Dec. 27, 2020).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Secretary DeVos Releases New Resources for Educators, Local Leaders on K-12 Flexibilities, Student Privacy, and Educating Students with Disabilities During Coronavirus Outbreak, U.S. DEP’T OF EDUCATION, (Mar. 12, 2020),

[8] Question and Answer Document about the IDEA Part B Provision (Sept. 28, 2020), OSEP QA 20-01.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] About IDEA, supra note 1.

[12] 504 Plan, HOPKINTON SPECIAL EDUCATION PARENT ADVISORY COUNCIL, (last visited Dec. 27, 2020).

[13] Steven J. Bachrach, 504 Education Plans, NEMOURS KIDSHEALTH (Sept. 2016),

[14] Interview with Chris Saporito, Wellness Center Coordinator, Gabrielino High School (Dec. 2020).

[15] Id.

[16] Id.