Q: I have several students who contracted COVID in mid-2021. Their parents have shared with teachers and campus principals that since contracting COVID, their children still experience symptoms of fatigue, mood changes, and difficulty concentrating. Do these children need to be referred for special education and related services?
A: Yes. If a child is experiencing lingering symptoms from COVID that appear to be impacting the child’s ability to participate and learn in the general curriculum, and thereby is suspected of having a disability (e.g., other health impairment), the student must be referred for an initial evaluation under IDEA to determine the impact of the “long COVID” symptoms and the child’s academic and functional needs.
Long COVID is a condition characterized by a long-term infection appearing or persisting after the typical convalescence period of COVID-19 (also known as chronic or post-COVID syndrome). The exact nature of symptoms and the number of people who experience long-term symptoms are unknown, as studies into various aspects of long COVID began in November 2021 and continue. A wide range of symptoms commonly reported include fatigue, headaches, shortness of breath, loss of smell, muscle weakness, and cognitive dysfunction.
As part of the U.S. Department of Education’s Return to School Roadmap issued in August 2021, the Department confirmed that if a child experiencing symptoms from long COVID is suspected of having a disability, the child must be referred for an initial evaluation. Long COVID symptoms may render a student eligible for services as a student with other health impairment (OHI). The Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) defines OHI, in part, as having limited strength or vitality that results in limited alertness with respect to the education environment, that: (1) is due to chronic or acute health problems; and (2) adversely affects a child’s educational performance. Importantly, school districts that do not respond to requests for accommodations and services due to long COVID may violate child find obligations under Section 504 and IDEA.
When a district is notified that a student has long COVID, special education directors and their teams should consider the following when determining whether a referral is necessary
(1) physician notes and information detailing the child’s symptoms;
(2) clarification of what parents are seeing from their child at home (including whether the child is exhausted at the end of the school day and exhibiting emotional or behavioral issues at home) determine if there is a distinction between what is exhibited at home versus what is exhibited at school; and
(3) recognition of evolving needs in that a child’s health which may change over time with continuing studies and information related to long COVID symptoms and future expectations.
A copy of the Return to School Roadmap can be found here: http://dataserver.lrp.com/DATA/servlet/DataServlet?fname=Return+to+School+Roadmap-child-find-part-b-08-24-2021.pdf. For specific questions or additional information regarding long COVID and related special education services, please consult with your local school law attorney.