3 Things for Schools to Remember About Long COVID Diagnoses

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Some people who previously tested positive for COVID-19 are now showing symptoms like tiredness, fatigue, difficulty thinking, concentrating, headache, changes in smell, taste, dizziness, or fast beating or pounding heart, usually appearing about a month after that initial positive test. This condition is being referred to as “Long COVID.”

Long COVID diagnoses among students and staff are sadly becoming more and more common. In fact, recently, questions have arisen for schools about what a diagnosis of Long COVID means for IEP eligibility, Section 504 Plan eligibility, and the rights of school personnel under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The United States Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights (OCR) released guidance that a student experiencing Long COVID may be eligible for special education under IDEA and/or may be entitled to services and protections under Section 504.

In addition to the complexities the OCR guidance brings to schools in serving at-risk students, there are important things to consider regarding school personnel who receive a diagnosis of Long COVID. So, lots of new questions about the rights of students and staff – and how best to support those who’ve received a diagnosis of Long COVID.

Many schools are fielding new questions like:

  • Is Long COVID a “disability?”
  • Should a student with a Long COVID diagnosis receive an IEP or a Section 504 plan?
  • Is a school employee with a Long COVID diagnosis entitled to protection under the ADA, and what does that mean from a legal perspective?

Here are three key legal points to keep in mind when making decisions related to Long COVID diagnoses.

1. A Long COVID diagnosis alone does not trigger eligibility for disability

Let’s remember that the OCR guidance uses the word “may” for an important reason – eligibility under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA) and Section 504 is never automatic.

OCR is not saying, “If a student receives a Long COVID diagnosis, she’s automatically entitled to an IEP.” Because she’s not.

Similarly, students are not “automatically” entitled to a Section 504 plan. And school employees with Long COVID diagnoses are not automatically entitled to protection under ADA and don’t automatically receive certain accommodations in the workplace.

Schools need more than a diagnosis to determine a student’s or an employee’s individual need and how to best support that person. Let’s remember our usual intervention and Child Find processes. A diagnosis of Long COVID, despite being new, and brought to our attention now from OCR, should not be treated any differently than other medical or mental health diagnosis.

Always be asking what is the student need? How can that need be most efficiently, and quickly, accommodated? May the classroom teacher accommodate and provide supports to address the need?

Or importantly, does the need require special education? How is the student engaging with peers and authority figures? Does academic performance look different? Remember, schools are required to accommodate in the general education first, before making “changes” to support need through special education.

You do a great job of exhausting the resource “continuum” before evaluating for special education or restricting the student’s experience through IEPs. The accommodation of Long COVID symptoms should not be treated any differently.

2. Continue using ordinary IDEIA & 504 eligibility processes

The eligibility criteria for students under IDEIA and Section 504, and the interactive process under ADA for employees, did not change as a result of COVID-19 or Long COVID.

As it relates to students, be sure to follow ordinary processes to determine eligibility for Section 504 plans or IEPs. Look at the impact of that Long COVID diagnosis – objectively identify the need.

For example, as it relates to Section 504 – is there an issue with physical plant access? Are there issues with testing? Are there issues with interaction? In terms of special education eligibility, how is special education going to address the symptoms of Long COVID? If there’s no special education needed, an IEP is not needed. Same with Section 504.

Let’s remember the interactive process with employees. You can’t simply say, “No, you get no accommodations.” But you should always say, “Yes, let’s engage in the process.” Ask for medical information, follow your typical process. Consider whether or not certain essential job duties are being impacted by the diagnosis. Simply having a diagnosis of Long COVID, just like having a diagnosis of COVID-19, doesn’t automatically entitle one to accommodation.

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3. Always focus on individual need

Remember, you don’t have to know everything – though it may often feel that way for many district and school leaders. In many ways, we’re figuring this out as we continue to educate during this public health crisis. We’re building the plane as we fly it. Lean on best practices. Remember to focus on individual need. Focus on the person. Don’t get distracted by Long COVID being a new or novel diagnosis, and don’t get stuck in the process. Continue to follow the process rules and best practices that you know.

And always, always, guide your teams towards helping students achieve real learning.

Student (and employee) progress has been, and always will be, the polestar.

Ask yourselves now, as you always do, with regard to Long COVID or anything else, is that student experiencing real, meaningful progress? If the answer is yes, good on you. Keep at it. If the answer is no, you need to ask why and then engage in the right process.

And of course, with your employees, continue to offer support. We can’t treat one differently who might have been COVID-19 positive. We can’t treat one differently with a Long COVID diagnosis. For school personnel, engage in the interactive process if one asks for accommodation and presents a diagnosis of Long COVID.

John B. Comegno II

John Comegno is Founder and President of the Comegno Law Group, P.C., and is recognized nationally as a leading School Law practitioner, representing public and independent schools, Educational Services Commissions, Special Service School Districts, and third-party education vendors. A nationally-recognized lecturer on School Law who has lectured to thousands of educational professionals across the United States, John regularly presents to conventions, professional groups, associations, public and independent schools, and other audiences