January 2021, the United States Department of Education (USDOE) Office of Civil Rights (OCR) launched an investigation into Fairfax County Public Schools’ (FCPS) practices of refusing to provide in-person instruction to students with disabilities, while at the same time opening “its schools to in-person child-care for general education students.”
A year and a half after OCR announced the investigation, FCPS’s current actions paint a portrait of a school district aggressive in its efforts to collect education-access fees from general education students, but lackadaisical in its efforts to address the needs of students whose IEPs weren’t implemented in full during its 2019-20 COVID closures.
What Education-Access Fees?
The 2019-20 school year marked FCPS’s rollout of FCPSOn in high schools countywide. FCPS characterizes the program as “a transformation of learning for students and educators.“
“At its core,” says FCPS, “it provides students with equitable access to meaningful learning experiences and technology to support their learning. In FCPSOn schools, each student receives an FCPS-issued laptop to access dynamic resources and participate in learning tailored to the student’s individual needs. Students will have access to the device at school, and in some schools and grade levels, they will also be able to take their device home. . . .” [Emphasis added.]
The program came with a $50 technology fee that would “help ensure students have access to the technology.”
Why did FCPS Refund Parking Fees, Not Computer Fees?
National headlines serve as a reminder that FCPS’s rollout of its online learning platform was a disaster. Hence, FCPS would be hard pressed to prove that during the 2019-20 COVID closures, FCPSOn provided “access to meaningful learning experiences” and ensured students “access[ed] dynamic resources and participate[d] in learning tailored to the student’s individual needs.”
In addition, FCPS’s own commissioned reports indicate a program full of problems before it was launched in high schools during 2019-20. (See reports dated August 2017, June 2018, September 2019, and October 2021. There is no 2020 report.) In the report reflecting on year three of phase one (September 2019), it is telling that even after three years of testing FCPSOn in classrooms, “during focus groups and interviews, teachers and principals were generally reserved when talking about student impact in terms of actual achievement. Educators were more likely to talk about the impact on learning in terms of the positive impact of the initiative on how students learn.” Reservations three years in should have been a red flag when FCPS started charging $50 during fall of 2019.
Yet, the $50 fee remains.
Seniors in the classes of 2020, 2021, and 2022 have been required to pay the 2019-20 $50 technology fee prior to graduation and FCPS has been aggressive in regard to collecting the fees. South County High School, as one example, sent numerous emails leading up to graduation 2022 and posted information on SCHS’s Class of 2022 site about the payment requirements. The messaging? If you don’t pay the fee, you won’t graduate.
However, FCPS processed approximately $298,839 in student parking-fee refunds.
FCPS’s “Response to Questions of the FY 2022 Budget” document states, “Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the related closing of schools in March 2020, students were refunded for parking in the final quarter in fiscal year 2020.”
Following the same line of thinking—and the fact that 1) FCPS’s online platform was a disaster and 2) FCPS refused to implement IEPs in full during this period—one wonders why FCPS refunded students for parking, but not computers.
What Does the Law Say?
OCR announced an investigation into Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) the same day it announced its investigation into FCPS. In its letter to LAUSD , OCR found the district at fault for many of the same actions and/or inactions that occurred within FCPS, determining that students did not receive FAPE.
The Section 504 regulation, at 34 C.F.R. § 104.33, requires public school districts to provide a
free appropriate public education (FAPE) to all students with disabilities in their jurisdictions.
An appropriate education is defined as regular or special education and related aids and services
that are designed to meet the individual needs of students with disabilities as adequately as the
needs of students without disabilities are met, and that are developed in accordance with the
procedural requirements of 34 C.F.R. §§ 104.34-36. [Emphasis added.]
A Lose-Lose-Lose Situation
If FCPS says students needed the computers to access their education, then FCPS must address why it didn’t require full implementation of IEPs, so students with special education needs could fully access their education during that time period.
If FCPS says school attendance was voluntary during the period, hence it didn’t have to implement IEPs in full, then FCPS must address why it is requiring students to pay the $50 fee prior to graduation.
Either way, the individual needs of students with disabilities were not met and FCPSOn didn’t live up to what students were supposed to receive in exchange for their $50.