Fairfax County Public Schools in Merrifield, Va. (AP Photo/Matthew Barakat, File)
Fairfax County Public Schools in Merrifield, Va. (AP Photo/Matthew Barakat, File)

The Office for Civil Rights found that FCPS failed to provide thousands of students with services identified in the students’ Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and 504 plans during remote learning.

When schools switched to remote learning in March 2020 amid growing concerns about the novel coronavirus, many students, teachers, and parents faced an unprecedented adjustment. Suddenly, children across the commonwealth were homebound, oftentimes getting their education from a screen.

For some students, the change worked well—so well, in fact, that some districts continued the online option for interested families even after school doors reopened.  

However, not all students thrived in the pandemic learning environment. For Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), that turned into an investigation by the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR).

The OCR launched an investigation into the provisions given to the 25,000 FCPS students with disabilities during the pandemic. By federal civil rights law, students have the right to a free appropriate public education (FAPE).

According to information released by the Department of Education, the OCR found that FCPS failed to provide thousands of students with services identified in the students’ Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and 504 plans during remote learning.  

The investigation found that FCPS:

  • Reduced and placed limits on services and special education instruction provided to students with disabilities based on considerations other than the students’ individual educational needs
  • Inaccurately informed staff that the school division was not required to provide compensatory education to students with disabilities who did not receive a FAPE during the COVID-19 pandemic because the school division was not at fault
  • Failed to develop and implement a plan adequate to remedy the instances in which students with disabilities were not provided a FAPE during remote learning

Additionally, the OCR raised concerns that FCPS “did not accurately track services provided to students with disabilities.”

In the News

This isn’t the first time the school division has been in the news over concerns about fairness for students with disabilities or learning differences. Earlier this fall, FCPS revealed a difficult statistic: the division’s special education students were three-times as likely to get in-school suspension.

One major difference between the in-school suspension findings and the recent OCR investigation is the timeframe. The statistics spanned a period from 2016 to 2019, stopping short of the pandemic. The OCR investigation looked specifically at the pandemic time period. 

Related to the statistics, FCPS contracted with the American Institutes of Research (AIR) review, which sought to:

  • Evaluate the system’s design, structure, and established processes
  • Evaluate the adequacy of human capital resources
  • Analyze the alignment of services with evidence-based practices
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of communication with stakeholders

The Fairfax County Public Schools: Special Education Comprehensive Program Review was released to the public ahead of a school board work session scheduled for Oct. 4.

Related to the OCR findings, the division will implement a resolution agreement including directives to:  

  • Develop and implement a plan to appropriately assess and provide compensatory education to students with disabilities who did not receive a FAPE during the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Designate a plan administrator who will oversee the creation and implementation of the plan
  • Convene IEP and Section 504 teams to determine whether students were not provided the regular or special education and related aids and services designed to meet their individual needs during remote learning and determine compensatory education
  • Track and report to OCR the implementation of the plan for compensatory education
  • Provide written guidance and/or training about the plan to all division staff with responsibilities under Section 504 and Title II
  • Conduct outreach to parents, guardians, students, and other stakeholders to publicize the plan for compensatory education

Changes Coming

On Nov. 30—the same day the OCR released its findings—FCPS addressed changes coming to their special education programs in a weekly division newsletter.

A segment of the newsletter read: “FCPS will be developing a Special Education Enhancement Plan to help inform our work to increase outcomes for students with disabilities. On November 15, FCPS staff shared their proposed process for developing the plan at a School Board work session. This process includes many opportunities for community feedback and collaboration from a diverse group of internal and external stakeholders such as FCPS parents/caregivers, students, employees, and content experts.”