Statement on National Emergency Educational Waivers related to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

May 5, 2020

As part of a report required by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the U.S. Department of Education announced last week that it will not request that Congress grant it the authority to waive core tenets of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Autism Speaks is grateful that the Department heeded the call from advocates and families across the country and refrained from recommending the waiver of critical protections for students with autism and other disabilities.  

From the outset of the COVID-19 crisis, students with autism spectrum disorder have seen their educational routines thrown into disarray, including significant reduction – or cancellation – of education-related services they receive through schools. While many schools and countless individual educators are doing the best they can to adapt to distance learning models, many students on the spectrum are able to access few – if any – of these adjusted educational opportunities. In addition to the immediate need for educators to figure out how best to provide equitable teaching to students now, they must also plan for how they will counteract the regression students are experiencing once schools reopen. Autism Speaks believes that the existing problems in education exacerbated by this crisis call for increased collaboration between schools and communities and, critically, that they cannot be solved by rolling back longstanding protections for students with autism and other disabilities. 

Autism Speaks remains committed to ensuring the rights and protections of autistic students in our nation’s schools both during and after this pandemic. We will continue to advocate at the local, state and federal levels to ensure the concerns of the autism community are made and kept a priority by legislators and other government officials. Please see our recent statement in support of a letter authored by Reps. Chris Smith and Mike Doyle (co-chairs of the Congressional Autism Caucus), which includes specific education proposals to assist the autism community.   



On Friday, March 27th, the president signed into law the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, including a section dedicated to National Emergency Educational Waivers. Part of this section required the Secretary of Education to prepare a report, within 30 days, recommending waivers she believed to be necessary under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) “to provide limited flexibility to States and local educational agencies to meet the needs of students.” On Monday, April 27th, the Department of Education released the report, which specifically stated that “the Department is not requesting waiver authority for any of the core tenets of the IDEA…most notably a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE).” In the intervening weeks between the passage of the CARES Act and the publication of the report, Autism Speaks joined with over 300 national, state and local organizations to oppose the use of emergency educational waivers under IDEA, and we thank the Department for acknowledging our collective recommendation. 

The basic premise behind the use of waivers is that, in difficult times, the law itself presents obstacles that cannot be overcome, so the only response is not to enforce it as written. Autism Speaks elected to oppose the use of waivers here, because we believe that the persistent capacity issues in special education – issues that are being exacerbated by the COVID pandemic – are the result of hurdles to successful implementation of IDEA, not barriers created by it. The use of waivers, therefore, is not a suitable way to address the continuing problems in our nation’s schools.  

While we are relieved that the Secretary’s report heeded the recommendation of Autism Speaks, alongside many other groups, and requested no waiver authority related to the core tenets of IDEA, much work remains to be done. It is clear from the report and other guidance from the Department that schools must provide eligible students with disabilities a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment, but we have heard countless stories from our families and community advocates that schools are struggling with how to do so – while schools are closed, providing distance learning or planning for the future. Autism Speaks will continue our work to bring together the autism community and officials across the government to find and employ collaborative solutions to these challenges.