The Education Law Center’s 2020 Back-to-School Guide

The Education Law Center (ELC) has updated their 2020 Back-to-School guide for schools, families and students. The information and fact sheets below now include COVID-19 related considerations for the upcoming school year.

Learning may look different during the pandemic as students and families face extraordinary challenges. However, these families continue to have important education rights and protections under state and federal laws that ELC is committed to defending. Students deserve of equitable, affirming, and culturally responsive school spaces.

As winners for educational justice, we must fight with the reality that too many families and schools have been places of pain, racial injustice and systemic oppression. Those inequities have grown more visible as schools are struggling. At the same time, we are encouraged by increasing public attention to issues of race and disability, as many students are affected by intersectional systems of oppression.

As school resumes, ELC urges partners, schools and policymakers to set out equity and to confront the legacies of anti-Black racism and other systemic inequities in schools. The focus is on underserved populations. The mission is to ensure that all children in Pennsylvania have access to quality public education.

You can visit your school district’s website for specific information about how it plans to educate and provide supports for students. Check your school’s policies to see if your children may have protections that go beyond the scope of this guide.

Check out this 11-step guide for the 2020 school year, provided by the ELC:

1. Affirming and Safe Schools, Free from Racism

Schools often fail to provide fair, safe, and affirming environments for all students,specifically dealing with children of color. Surprisingly, racial hate and abuse altercations are on the rise. Pennsylvania schools need to invest in anti-racist education, create thorough equity policies and practices so students can thrive, and ensure that responses to hate crimes address school climate. Every school has systemic and structural racism that pervades our country and culture, whether obvious or subliminal. Educators and administrators have the legal commitment to speak against and act accordingly to confront and stop racial discrimination, including racial harassment.

Schools are legally obliged to ensure that students won’t be denied opportunities, treated differently, discriminated against, or harassed because of their race, color, national origin, or immigration status. Schools must have policies and practices to prevent and address unequal treatment like discrimination and harassment.

Use the resources in ELC’s new fact sheet to engage with your child’s school and ensure that anti-racism, culturally responsive education, and full-school climate interventions are in place. Check out more fact sheets from ECL:

·        The Right to Be Free from Racism at School

·        Online and Hybrid Learning: An Equity Checklist for Schools

2. Student Enrollment

Students should be enrolled in school within five days of submitting these four documents: proof of the child’s age, proof of where the child lives, immunization records, and a sworn statement of disciplinary record.

However, the requirement to show proof of immunizations has been suspended for the first two months of the school year because of potential delays in getting immunizations during COVID-19. Many school districts are only accepting online enrollment, requiring internet access. Parents must take pictures of enrollment documents and upload them online. During this time, families should ask schools to be adjustable in the types of documents to accept and how they can send the documents to school.

Cyber charter schools are public schools,and are required under the law to serve all students, including children with IEPs and English learners. But they may have limited experience doing so. To find out whether a cyber charter school has experience serving English learners, click here, search for the school by name, and click on the tab labeled “School Fast Facts.” To find out whether the cyber charter school serves children with your child’s type of disability, click here, scroll down to the name of the school, and click on the report for the most recent year.

View these fact sheets provided by ELC:

·        How to Enroll a Child in Public School

·        How to Enroll a Child Living with Someone Other than Their Parent

·        Enrollment Complaint Process

3. School Discipline

Students have particular rights and protections when facing school discipline such as suspension, expulsion or a disciplinary transfer. These rights include proper notice, the right to ask questions, the right to an appropriate hearing, and in most cases, the right to receive education services in the interim and after exclusion.

During COVID-19, school discipline will look completely different. If your child is learning from home and the school is changing or limiting their online program, you may be entitled to rights and school discipline protections. If your child is sent home from school or told they cannot come back because they did not follow new safety and social distance rules, you are still entitled to rights and school discipline protections.

See ECL’s updated Student Rights to Free Speech and Expression fact sheet for more information and examples. Check out more fact sheets provided by ELC:

·        Suspensions in Pennsylvania

·        Expulsions in Pennsylvania

·        Alternative Education for Disruptive Youth (AEDY)

·        Alternative Education for Students with Disabilities  

·        Alternative Education for English Learners

·        Student Rights to Free Speech and Expression

4. Truancy

Pennsylvania requires all students go to school from age 6 until age 18 or graduation. This time period is called “compulsory school age.” When students have too many unexcused absences, legal consequences can arise. If a student accrues three unexcused absences, they are considered “truant.” If a student has six or more unexcused absences, they are considered “habitually truant.” Schools must push to improve attendance for students who are habitually truant, including holding attendance improvement conferences to identify and address the reason for absences.

See ECL’s Truancy and School Attendance in Pennsylvania Fact Sheet to learn more.

View more fact sheets provided by ELC:

·        Truancy and School Attendance in Pennsylvania

·        A Judge’s Guide to Truancy and Act 138

5. Bullying and Harrassment

Bullying and harassment are important issues that can notably affect a child’s learning ability. No student should have to deal bullying and harassment in any form‒ whether it is verbal, written, graphic, physical or online. Pennsylvania schools are required by law to have written policies against bullying and harassment and must investigate and address any complaints. Behavior may qualify as “harassment” if the offensive conduct relates to race, color, national origin/ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, disability, or religion. If your child is experiencing bullying or harassment, keep detailed records of each incident and request in writing that the school take action.

Attending a school “session” of virtual instruction while sitting at home during COVID-19 closures is still in-school time; school staff must intervene to interrupt and prevent any bullying or harassment, using developmentally appropriate interventions.

For more information, read ELC’s factsheets:

·        What Can I Do If My Child is Bullied or Harassed? A Parent’s Guide to Advocacy in Pennsylvania Public Schools

·        Cyberbullying

6. Students With Disabilities

Students who have a disability that impacts their learning can use a planned program of education and special services that takes account of a student’s individual needs called free appropriate public education commonly (FAPE). Special education and related services must be provided by the school free of charge. Parents have the right to participate in the special education process and consent to or refuse particular services. Students with disabilities cannot be punished for behavior that is caused by or related to their disability.

Students with disabilities and their parents still have all of these rights despite school closures and other changes related to COVID-19. Parents should be included in the creation of individualized plans for their students with disabilities to fully access remote learning, hybrid learning, or whatever plan a school develops in response to COVID-19. Students with disabilities should receive all necessary services, including related services, to address their needs.

Check out these fact sheets from ELC to learn how to help your children with disabilities for this school year:

·        Guide for Parents and Advocates on the Right to Special Education in Pennsylvania

·        Special Education Evaluations

·        Resolving Special Education Disagreements

7. Early Childhood Education

Children who receive quality early education do better in kindergarten and in school overall. Publicly funded programs such as Head Start, Early Head Start and Pre-K Counts offer free early childcare and education programs for children from low-income families. The Early Intervention program provides additional services for children with developmental delays and disabilities at no cost to parents, regardless of income.

Read these facts sheets from ELC to learn more:

·        Early Intervention FAQ

·        ELC Guide to Inclusive Early Education and Early Intervention in PA

8. Students Involved in Foster Care or Juvenile Justice Systems

Children involved in foster care or juvenile justice systems can attend free public education, like all public school students.

Students in foster care have additional rights to ensure their school environment is stable, even if their living arrangements have changed. The right to “school stability” includes the right to remain in the same school even when youth change living placements, the right to enroll in a new school immediately without the required documents, and the right to have an active, involved education decision-maker.

Students who are placed by court order in a residential facility – including students “adjudicated delinquent” – are entitled to attend the local public school in the district where the facility is located, unless certain exceptions apply.

Check out these links from ELC to learn about the rights of students in the system:

·        Rights of Students in Foster Care and the Juvenile Justice System

·        Tips for Planning the High School Fall Semester for Youth in Foster Care

·        School Stability & Immediate Enrollment of Students in Foster Care

·        Toolkit for court-appointed “Educational Decision Makers” (EDMs)

9. Students Experiencing Homelessness

Students in all public schools, both district and charter, who are experiencing homelessness or housing instability, are entitled to school stability, and immediate enrollment in school, as well as free transportation to and from school. This includes unaccompanied students experiencing homelessness on their own. A federal law called the McKinney-Vento Act provides homeless students experiencing a several options of protections to ensure equal access to an education, from preschool through high school.

These protections do not have a time limit and remain in place until the student is no longer experiencing homelessness, even during COVID-19. McKinney-Vento eligible students have a right to school stability, with transportation provided until the end of the school year in which they secure permanent and adequate housing.

This fact sheet will help understand The Rights of Students Experiencing Homelessness.

10. English Learners; Students and Families from Linguistically and Culturally Diverse Communities

English learners have several special protections, including the right to learn English (with language instruction such as English as a Second Language or ESL), the right to supports, modifications, and accommodations in their core classes, and the right to be free from harassment based on their race, immigration status, or national origin. Parents whose first language is not English have the right to receive information about their child’s education in a language they understand.

All students have the right to attend school, regardless of their immigration status. Schools cannot ask about a student’s immigration status and cannot require a birth certificate or Social Security number before enrolling a child in school. Students and families from linguistically and culturally diverse communities should receive language services and accommodations that allow them to participate in education regardless of English proficiency.

For more information about the rights of immigrant, refugee, and asylee students and families, the U.S. Department of Education has a website with translated resources. Two factsheets are available in over ten languages on the rights of English learners to participate in educational programs and the rights of limited English proficient parents and caregivers to receive translation and interpretation for communications with school.

Check out these fact sheet to learn more:

·        Rights of English Learners & Limited English Proficient Parents

·        Rights of Limited English Proficient Parents to Enroll Children in School

·        Immigrant and Refugee Student Bill of Rights

11. LGBTQ & Gender-Nonconforming Students

LGBTQ and gender nonbinary or gender-nonconforming (GNC) students have the same rights as other students, including the right to be out and the right to be free from bullying and harassment. Schools must respect the right of transgender students to access facilities and programs aligned with their gender identity.

With COVID-19 school closures that require students to stay at home for virtual classes, there may be additional challenges for LGBTQ students resulting from limited access to community support, lack of in-school counseling and, in some cases, the difficult circumstances of quarantining with unsupportive family members. Schools have the obligation to support students’ social, emotional, and mental health, including via remote services and virtual meetings for a Gay Sexuality Alliance (GSA) or other student group.

If a student who is transgender, GNC, or nonbinary identifies a chosen name and pronouns, school staff should use that name and pronoun for all interactions, written and verbal, except where required by the law to use a child’s legal name. This includes providing an opportunity to correct the student’s name on any digital platforms a school is using during virtual learning (i.e. display name on Google Classroom). Purposefully and persistently misgendering a student may be harassment under the law.

Check out The Rights of LGBTQ, Gender-Nonconforming, & Nonbinary Students fact sheet to learn more.

Lasty, one of the back-to-school priorities must be to address the state’s inadequate and unfair funding of schools. Far too many children are returning to Pennsylvania schools that are lacking in resources and student supports.

Please participate in PA Schools Work, the statewide campaign for adequate and equitable funding and follow ELC on Facebook and Twitter for updates on our fair funding lawsuit against the state for failure to fund public education under the state constitution.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of A Second Chance, Inc.

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