On July 26, 2021, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and Office for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) issued a Factsheet explaining the potential for students who have been infected with COVID-19 to experience new, returning, or ongoing post-COVID health problems that may qualify as a disability under Section 504 or the IDEA. The Factsheet reinforces the need to follow standard Section 504 and IDEA procedures related to child find, evaluations, eligibility, and services and modifications for such students. The challenges of the last year and a half have led to a variety of health, academic, and social/emotional difficulties for students, all of which must be reviewed on an individual basis to determine if they indicate a disability.
According to the CDC, individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19 but no longer carry the virus in their bodies may still experience continuing health conditions. These long-term conditions are known as long COVID. Symptoms of long COVID can include fatigue, difficulty concentrating and thinking, sleep problems, chest and stomach pain, mood changes, and dizziness on standing, among other conditions. Individuals can experience long COVID even if they were asymptomatic when infected. Unsurprisingly, these types of symptoms may affect a student’s educational performance, ability to access the educational program, and other major life activities.
In the Factsheet, OCR, and OSERS review for school districts the special education implications of long COVID, both for students who were previously receiving services and for those who had not previously been found eligible. The Factsheet outlines the child find responsibilities, evaluation requirements, eligibility criteria, and process to create and implement a plan under Parts C and B of the IDEA and under Section 504. School districts should consider the existence and impact of long COVID symptoms on students at all stages of these processes.
Because long COVID includes a broad variety of symptoms and is experienced differently by different students, individualized determinations are especially critical. For students with long COVID, as well as students struggling with other pandemic-related challenges, the reminder to consider Section 504 and IDEA eligibility is useful, but also keep your MTSS and other general education supports in mind. As students transition back to school buildings full-time, identifying students with disabilities remains an important responsibility, but strong Tier 1 instruction and support for all students is also essential.