Northview Elementary fourth grader Harmony Hemphill 8

Northview Elementary fourth grader Harmony Hemphill 8, sits behind a plastic shield and masked while showing principal Patricia Guyton her work on the computer Monday, Aug. 31, 2020. The school is in the Jennings School District. 

Whether your school district is still entirely online or moving toward a hybrid or in-person plan, a lot has changed in St. Louis region’s education landscape due to COVID-19. But some things have not changed: if you are a student or a parent or guardian, you have rights from federal and state laws that remain no matter your schooling environment.

At Legal Services of Eastern Missouri’s Education Justice Program, we work to ensure that all students in Missouri receive a quality education by targeting the root causes of education inequity and advancing systemic change. Here, we offer a few tips for parents and students to advocate for yourselves as you navigate this unprecedented school year and identify issues that may need legal intervention.

Access to technology

For many families, accessing vital distance-learning technology and Internet connectivity is the first step in adapting to new learning environments. If schools require the use of a school-issued device for your student’s education, then they cannot charge you a fee – even a small one. The Missouri Constitution guarantees free public schools for all students, and courts have said that this prohibits a school district from charging fees in courses for academic credit.

Be proactive and communicate with your school to address any problems with a school-issued device. If you do not have transportation to pick up a device or bring it in for repairs, ask the school to accommodate you if possible.

Students with unstable housing

The McKinney-Vento Act is a federal law protecting students who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence. This could include those living in shared housing due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason; those living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or camping grounds due to no other options; and those living in substandard housing. The law requires schools to immediately enroll eligible students without requiring documentation, set up transportation without delay, ensure equal access to education, and remove barriers to enrollment and retention of students experiencing homelessness. Schools’ obligations under this law have not changed during the pandemic.

If you believe your family qualifies as homeless, ask for the homeless liaison at either your school of origin, in the district where you were last permanently housed or enrolled, or at your school of residency, in the district where you lay your head at night. If you disagree with the school’s decision about enrollment, whether your family qualifies or not for services, transportation, or school selection, the school must provide dispute resolution procedures, which include immediate enrollment in the school of your choosing and transportation while the dispute is worked out.

Liaisons should stay in contact via regular check-ins to ensure connection to instruction and other school-based supports. Students eligible for McKinney-Vento must receive the same access to technology, PPE, and other necessary resources as other students.

School discipline

In Missouri, local school boards are responsible for establishing written discipline policies, often called codes of conduct, that govern which behaviors result in suspension or expulsion. Few districts in the St. Louis area have made formal changes to their discipline practices as they adapt to remote or hybrid learning or attempt to implement social distancing in their buildings, but check your school code of conduct and announcements to stay updated.

If your student is suspended for any amount of time, thy must be given oral or written notice and should be told why they are being suspended with an opportunity to share their side of the story. Long-term suspensions (between 11 and 180 days) and expulsions (which are permanent, for more than 180 days) require additional due process, which usually means that schools will provide a more formal proceeding in addition to notice. You have a right to appeal a short-term suspension, a long-term suspension, or an expulsion.

For students with disabilities, there are additional special protections in disciplinary proceedings that have not been waived during COVID-19.  Any student who has been removed long-term from the general classroom for disciplinary reasons has a right to receive an alternative education, paid for by the school district.

Students with disabilities

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) ensures that students with qualifying disabilities have the right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) from birth to age 21. For these students, school districts must offer an Individualized Education Program (IEP) “reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child's circumstances.” Schools have been given some flexibility during COVID-19, but some requirements still must be met. If a school district provides distance learning during school closures, the district must continue providing services and meeting timelines listed in a student’s IEP “to the greatest extent possible.”

If you and the school agree, IEP meetings may be held via phone or video conference. Evaluation timelines may be extended, but initial special education requests and referrals must still be accepted. Document the services provided to your student during remote learning and communicate with school staff about what is working and not working. Use email and text when possible and take notes after a phone call.

General tips

Be sure to read all correspondence from your school and district, including emails and mail. If possible, check your school district’s website often, since many are updated frequently, and consider joining a virtual parent group for news and support. If you need additional resources or assistance with technology, food, or childcare, you should explain your situation to school support staff to brainstorm options and consider reaching out to local churches, libraries, and community centers.

All families are encouraged to take the Education Justice Program’s survey at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/9MCLJKK, which will be used to help us better understand the education issues facing students during this crisis. If you have concerns about your student’s access to education during COVID-19, please call our hotline at 314-256-8789.

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