To the editor:
In defending her district against a state finding of noncompliance, Beverly School Superintendent Dr. Suzanne Charochak makes claims (”State faults Beverly on special education waivers,” July 25) that require response.
The finding of noncompliance arose from Beverly’s use of the following language in notices sent to families of special education students: “The parents/guardians agree to excuse the district from strict performance of Individualized Education Program timelines which are not possible due to governmental directives arising from or related to COVID-19 pandemic issues.” Dr. Charochak argues that there were a lot of mixed messages and lack of clear cut guidance from the state at the beginning of the pandemic on the issue of timelines, leading districts across the state to use this disclaimer language which amounts to a broad waiver of parental rights.
Since schools were closed on March 13, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) has communicated regularly with districts via weekly Power Point special education leaders’ meetings and periodic guidance documents. All this material has been posted on the DESE website, along with relevant federal guidance.
The question of how districts could comply with regulatory timelines while schools are closed was first addressed in federal guidance issued March 21 that said that “As a general principle, during this unprecedented national emergency, public agencies are encouraged to work with parents to reach mutually agreeable extensions of time, as appropriate.” Discussion of this topic was continued in DESE’s weekly special education leaders’ meetings beginning April 3. Throughout, DESE has reiterated its directive that districts must take a student-specific (not a district-wide) approach to managing regulatory timelines, and broad waivers of parental rights are not permissible.
Federal and state authorities have never endorsed the position that governmental directives arising from or related to COVID-19 pandemic issues precludes districts from meeting any or all special education regulatory timelines. DESE has not sent mixed messages to districts. Their message has been clear and consistent that districts are expected to work collaboratively with families to reach mutually agreeable extensions of timelines, as appropriate, and to document those agreements.
Ellen Mahoney Chambers