Chicago Teachers Union sues Betsy DeVos, CPS over coronavirus special education requirements

The federal lawsuit alleges new policies have created an “impossible burden” for school workers and threaten to interfere with the learning of children.

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Educators, students and union laborers rally at Union Park during the Chicago Teachers Union strike in 2019. The union is on track to finalize a safety agreement with Chicago Public Schools this week.

Educators, students, and union laborers rally at Union Park during the Chicago Teachers Union strike last fall.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file photo

The Chicago Teachers Union is suing federal and local education officials over special education regulations the union alleges have created an “impossible burden” for school workers and threaten to interfere with student learning during the coronavirus pandemic.

The union filed a nine-page federal lawsuit Tuesday against the U.S Department of Education, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the Chicago Board of Education, claiming its members are being forced to “conduct a whole scale redrafting” of students’ special education plans in the final six weeks of the school year.

“Aside from being impossible to accomplish, and from threatening to interfere with the provision of the special education services needed by these children, the redrafting of roughly 70,000 plans is highly likely to increase the anxiety and emotional distress of parents or guardians and that will further complicate the revision of these plans,” the union wrote in its complaint.

The plans in question, called Individualized Education Programs and 504 Plans, are federally enforced legal documents unique to each special education student that lay out exactly what types of services the child needs throughout a school year. Yearly meetings are held for parents of every student with case managers, teachers, clinicians and other staff to develop those plans according to each child’s needs.

Given an opportunity through Congress’ Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to waive a requirement that school districts nationwide revise student’s special education plans as needed, DeVos declined, according to the suit. Following that decision, Chicago Public Schools’ special education office then required teachers and case managers to meet with every student to come up with a new remote learning plan, the CTU said.

The union argues its members’ time would be better served during the pandemic adjusting to teaching students based on their existing plans rather than taking hours to hold meetings with every parent to come up with thousands of new documents.

“CPS’s implementation of the Department’s regulatory burden would be impossible to achieve, and would divert the CTU members from their mission of providing the services called for in the existing plans in the current remote learning environment,” the lawsuit claims.

Chicago Public Schools spokeswoman Emily Bolton said the district’s remote learning guidance doesn’t require teachers or clinicians to rewrite those special education documents, and only calls for them to make “basic accommodations and plans to deliver services to help their students adjust to this unprecedented learning format.”

“Our special education students deserve access to a high-quality education and the district’s remote learning guidance outlines expectations for educators to ensure students are supported under this unique learning format,” Bolton said in a statement. “Make no mistake: this lawsuit against the district is not about helping students — it’s about avoiding the necessary steps to ensure our most vulnerable students are supported during this unprecedented crisis.”

Asked about the lawsuit at an unrelated news conference, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she “doesn’t typically comment on pending litigation, and I won’t say much here, but the truth of what the reality is will be revealed in time.”

Department of Education Press Secretary Angela Morabito said in an emailed statement that the lawsuit is “nothing more than political posturing for a headline.

“It’s sad to see the union making excuses for why they can’t educate all students instead of figuring out a way to make it happen,” Morabito said.

School districts and educators across the country have had trouble determining how to serve special education students during the pandemic shutdown, with many kids with a wide range of disabilities needing assistance from aides who aren’t available as learning has moved from schools to homes.

Teachers have taken to social media frustrated that federal guidelines have not met reality on the ground. Many educators expected the Department of Education to ease requirements on school districts for special education services given the inability to offer the same assistance remotely.

“Many of these students will likely need compensatory education services because of the interruption to their education, and CTU strongly supports the creation of a compensatory education fund to pay for additional services including tutoring, therapeutic camps, and technology supports,” the unions says in its lawsuit.

Contributing: Fran Spielman

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