- The Washington Times
Wednesday, January 20, 2021

The Department of Education has opened an investigation into allegations that Fairfax County Public Schools did not provide a “free appropriate public education” to students with disabilities and special needs during the coronavirus pandemic.

The school system was notified last week that the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights initiated a discrimination investigation, according to a copy of the notice obtained by The Washington Times.

The letter cited a September report by WUSA9 detailing the frustration felt by families with special need students due to virtual learning at the start of the school year, though the county government supported child care for some general education students inside school buildings.

Schools spokeswoman Lucy Caldwell told The Washington Times in a statement that the district is seeking more information about the complaints so it can “conduct its own internal investigation, and address concerns that may arise as [a] result of that investigation, as soon as we can.”

With 186,000 students, Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) is the largest school district in the state, and began its 2020-2021 academic year in September with online-only instruction.

In November, it released an internal analysis of the first quarter showing that students were struggling with the adjustment to in-person learning, particularly students with disabilities. That group saw a significant increase in students who were getting two or more failing grades.

Susan Edgerton, president of the Parents of Autistic Children of Northern Virginia, said she understands that FCPS was trying its best under unprecedented circumstances but ultimately dropped the ball.

“It’s been a challenging time for everybody and I actually think our schools have been working very hard but clearly it’s not satisfactory for anybody that’s involved,” Ms. Edgerton told The Times. “I do think there’s good intent. I don’t know that it’s executed really well.”

One of the biggest issues for Ms. Edgerton is the confusion over when students are returning to the classroom.

Groups of students, including some with special needs, began a phased return to in-person learning in October, but rising COVID-19 cases halted that progress in November.

In August, during a virtual FCPS town hall, one parent called in to ask how her son could get support.

“I have a son who is in the enhanced autism classroom and has not been able to successfully access any schooling virtually. He is quite angry he will throw his screen, kick his screen and, so, as of March when schools closed he has not been able to access any school,” the mother said.

Ms. Edgerton‘s son, who is on the autism spectrum, is in high school and works through the general education curriculum at a different pace. She said a lot of other families are frustrated with supportive services like speech, occupational or assistive technology services.

“My son gets speech therapy services and over the spring, he was getting these worksheets that were from, probably the 1970s to help him with social skills,” she said. “They were using this like real antiquated language and I was like that’s supposed to teach my kid social skills?”

Now, her son is doing this kind of work in a group which is helping, Ms. Edgerton said.

Teachers unions have been wary about returning to in-person instruction because of health risks.

The school district uses two CDC recommended indicators for its reopening plans: the number of new cases per 100,000 people and the regional percentage of positive COVID-19 tests — both measured over the previous 14 days.

As of Tuesday, there were 744.3 new cases per 100,000 people and a 13.2% positive test rate, according to the Virginia Department of Health. Both indicators were in the Health Department’s highest risk level.

All students were learning virtually for the first week after winter break, and earlier this month the Fairfax County School Board opted not to begin a phased reopening that would have brought back most students by early February. The board will reconvene next month to reconsider a plan based on the latest COVID-19 data.

• Gabriella Muñoz can be reached at gmunoz@washingtontimes.com.

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