When the CARES Act became law on March 27, the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities worked quickly to summarize and share the key provisions for community-based organizations. As our network digested the legislation, much of the early focus was around fiscal implications such as support for meeting payroll, additional funding for meeting increased community demand, and funding for investing in technology for remote services.

K-12 education stakeholders in the Alliance network—those who operate schools, and those who support schools through consultation, mental health services, and more—soon zeroed in on a key regulatory implication of the CARES Act, the ability of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to grant waivers to states regarding federal education policy. 

The CARES Act did grant the secretary the ability to waive certain provisions of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). For example, states could seek flexibilities around federal requirements such as administering state assessments and training educators in person. Given that a majority of states had closed schools (or would soon be closing schools) for the academic year, these waivers were logical and necessary. Another much-needed waiver provided states with flexibility to spend more money on technology—beyond the yearly limits set by ESSA—to allow for the transition to online learning. 

The CARES Act did not grant DeVos the ability to grant waivers to states regarding the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) … yet.  The legislation dictated that within 30 days, by April 27, the secretary would submit a report to Congress with recommendations for waivers that may be necessary. The contents of the forthcoming report would affect millions of students, parents, and educators. Fourteen percent of public-school students are served under IDEA, which ensures that those with disabilities have access to free, appropriate public education and that their parents are involved in all decisions regarding their individualized education plans. Educators and disability rights activists worried that if states were able to seek exemptions for these federally protected civil liberties, they would neither be motivated nor accountable to innovate and adapt to equitably meet the needs of all students as they transitioned to distance learning.

So what happened during those 30 days across the Alliance network? 

The Alliance member network exchanged information and perspectives via webinars, in our learning community, and through personal communication. The Alliance knew our members had a major stake in this conversation, given that the students they support are more likely to have a disability than the average student population. A full 25% of webinar attendees reported that 95-100% of the students they serve have IEPs. As they grappled with the overnight transition to distance learning and supporting all students equitably, members shared feedback such as:

"We're concerned about the potential for state waiver requests for IDEA. Children with disabilities could be underserved during this period."

 "I don’t want any of my kids to lose the supports, but we are out of compliance and have been for the last three weeks with roughly 150 students."

“The best way I can sum it up is building the airplane while it’s in flight.”

We advocated. The Alliance and other national advocates signed onto this letter to protect the rights of students with disabilities to receive a FAPE, and the rights of their parents to be included in decisions or updates. We encouraged members to sign onto a similar letter for state and local organizations. 

Andy Ross, CEO of The Children’s Guild which operates schools in the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., area, published an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun. He asserted that children with special education needs “often have trouble with any deviation from their routine, so imagine how no school, no teachers, no mental health services and no dedicated aides affects them. Every effort needs to be made to meet the needs of these children."

The Alliance also lifted up the #MyIDEAmatters campaign, led by the National Center for Learning Disabilities, encouraging members to engage with the hashtag to get it trending nationally.

We monitored what was happening in Washington D.C. Our network was pleased to see this guidance from senators on both sides of the aisle, recommending that all core tenets of IDEA remain intact, and any waivers granted to states regarding timelines must be “narrow, targeted, and temporary.” The senators’ recommendations also echoed the calls of advocates to provide supplemental funding to maintain learning for students with disabilities through innovative strategies.

On April 27, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos submitted her report to Congress. The Alliance and other disability advocates around the country were thrilled to see that the secretary had not recommended that Congress waive any of the main requirements of IDEA, ensuring that children with disabilities retain their right to a free, appropriate public education. In line with guidance from special education administrators, DeVos did recommend narrow waivers to a few sections of the law, including one that will extend the timeline schools have to offer services and conduct evaluations. 

Next Steps 

The Alliance is hearing many stories of innovation and resilience from our members as they work to provide remote education for all students. The Children’s Guild will be sharing lessons learned and advice during a webinar on July 8 about the development of their distance learning team, how they’re prioritizing social-emotional learning, and how they’ve been coaching seniors to complete their high school diplomas. Learn more and register here

We continue to exchange resources in our Educational Success Alliance Peer Exchange (APEX) group, such as this webinar from the National Association of School Psychologists. Join the Educational Success APEX group by updating your profile and access the group space in the Alliance Learning Community.

Alliance members also have access to full issues of Education Week as part of our library’s digital subscriptions, and can access many articles related to this topic, such as: 

And of course, in the Alliance’s policy action center, we continue to advocate for the well-being of children to come first in all financial relief efforts during the pandemic.