How to spend CARES Act funding to support students with disabilities


How to spend CARES Act funding to support students with disabilities


of respondents in a survey of EAB partner districts said they plan to use CARES Act funds to serve disadvantaged students

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act promises more than 16 billion federal dollars to K-12 education. In advance of EAB’s webinar “How Districts Can Get the Most Impact from CARES Act Funds“, the District Leadership Forum surveyed partner districts about what they planned to do with the money. Fifty percent of respondents said they intend to use the funds to serve disadvantaged students.

“Disadvantaged students” is a broad term and encompasses many worthy expenditures to meet students’ needs. To minimize widening achievement gaps and meet federal mandates, one population that districts should not overlook is students with disabilities.

Below are several tips for allocating CARES Act dollars to ensure equitable learning for students with disabilities.

Fund instruction and continuous services for students with disabilities now or spend more later

Districts should direct CARES Act resources to students with disabilities now to improve their learning outcomes and minimize spending on compensatory education in the future. Many students with disabilities rely on in-person instruction and accommodations. But, most students with disabilities haven’t received the Individualized Education Program (IEP)-mandated services they need and have made limited academic progress or regressed since the shutdown.  Districts that do not allocate funds to address the problem now will likely face a looming tsunami of compensatory education down the road. 

Federal guidance from the Department of Education suggests that districts must award compensatory education to make up for skills regression and lost services when school resumes, so districts might face legal challenges if they fail to do so. Parents of students with IEPs will understandably demand robust compensatory measures. Already, parents in Hawaii filed a class action lawsuit against the state’s sole school district for denying their children Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) during the pandemic.

Fund distance learning arrangements that mimic in-person instruction

Each minute that special education students spend in an environment similar to their IEP-mandated, in-person services directly reduces the number of minutes of compensatory education districts will need to award. Here are several ways to use CARES Act funding to closely simulate in-person instruction:

  • Purchase online learning supports to help special education students build reading skills at home.
  • Partner with virtual therapy providers to provide IEP-mandated related services (e.g., occupational therapy).
  • Fund stipends for special education teachers to translate accommodations and IEP service minutes to students’ home environment.
  • Hire additional para-professionals and/or specialists to virtually deliver IEP service minutes.
  • Subscribe to interpreter services to facilitate communication between IEP teams and bilingual homes.

Investments in robust distance learning for students with disabilities should be one of district’s top priorities for CARES dollars. These investments will help districts minimize the future burden of compensatory education.

Return students with moderate-to-severe disabilities safely to the classroom

Distance learning does not constitute FAPE for students with many moderate-to-severe disabilities and places unnecessary strain on parents to serve as teachers and therapists. Districts should prioritize the return to in-person school of students who rely heavily on in-person support and therefore cannot learn through distance learning. For example, though school remains closed for the vast majority of students, earlier this month San Jose Middle School (Marin County, CA) allowed five students with severe disabilities (e.g., Autism Spectrum Disorder) to return. 

Safe reentry, however, requires significant planning and precautions. Districts will need to invest in sufficient staffing, equipment, and hygienic measures to keep the school community safe. For example, districts may need to double specially equipped buses to promote social distancing.

San Jose Middle School promotes safe reentry by assigning one teacher and three paraprofessionals to the class of five students and mandates temperature checks both at the beginning and mid-way through each school day. Teachers also continuously sanitize backpacks and surfaces.

Add a budget line item for compensatory education to prepare for upcoming costs

Administrators should create a budget line-item for funding compensatory education for students with disabilities—which, currently, they rarely do. Compensatory education will represent a huge upcoming cost for districts nationwide. Even special education experts hesitate to guess the extent of the costs districts might face.

Districts may need to hire additional staff or fund additional hours of services from contracted providers to meet compensatory education mandates. If parents challenge compensatory education awards, districts may face staggering legal costs: Legal proceedings surrounding IEP disputes cost, on average, $50,000 to compensate one family.

Districts should prioritize investing in robust remote and in-person services now to avoid as many of these costs as possible. But some compensatory education costs will occur—and districts should begin to financially prepare.

As districts prepare for the summer and upcoming school year, administrators should keep the unique needs of students with disabilities top-of-mind. By making investments now, schools can create an infrastructure to serve students with disabilities through ongoing disruptions—and, by doing so, save money in the future.

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Traditional district summer planning will no longer suffice. Districts and their schools must adapt quickly to conditions as they develop, which means planning for many potential futures. So, while superintendents want answers to the questions above, they are also telling us what they need right now are new ways to plan and execute—to develop what many district leaders are describing as a rapid response organization.

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