Few challenges are as difficult as an illness that lingers or, in some cases, may never go away. A chronic illness can be trying for an adult; for a child, it’s both heartbreaking and anxiety-inducing.
If your child is ill at home (or in the hospital) for any great length of time, you’ll probably soon start to worry about your child's education.
Let's make a distinction at the start: There is a great deal of difference between how schools approach a week or two of absence from an illness like the flu, and how schools approach a chronic illness that keeps a child out of class for months (at a time or cumulatively).
If your child is out sick for a short period of time and will recover fully, your best bet is to contact the school and your child's teachers. They can assign appropriate homework to keep your child up to date.
What if your child is beset with a long-term illness, however? Read on to find out what you can do to facilitate and safeguard your child's education.
If your child suffers from an extended illness, and if that illness is impairing her normal education, then what your child requires is some level of accommodation from the school. That accommodation is governed by federal law, specifically Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (amended in 2008).
Section 504 governs all school-aged children — even into college, though it operates differently at the postsecondary level. As a federal law, it extends to students at all schools that receive federal funding (private schools, while possibly exempt from Section 504, are still governed by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which enforces the same standards).
In the eyes of the law, the type of illness from which your child suffers is not particularly important. What is important is whether or not the illness “causes a substantial limitation on the student's ability to learn or complete another major life activity." Major life activities are defined by the law rather broadly and include: eating, sleeping, standing, lifting, reading, concentrating, thinking, and communicating, as well as experiencing normal immune system function and cell growth.
Key Fact: Before 2009, school districts could determine that “mitigating measures" that a child used to aid her impairment (such as an oxygen tank) disqualified her from Section 504. Districts sometimes argued that such measures solved the problem, and thus no further accommodation was required. Today, school districts can no longer consider “mitigating measures" as part of their 504 evaluations.
An extended illness that keeps your child out of school for anything longer than a week (again, not including ailments such as the flu) will almost certainly enable your child to receive some sort of accommodation. In the 2008 ADA Amendments Act, Congress deemed a "transitory impairment" one that does or is anticipated to last less than six months. Schools typically determine services on a case-by-case basis when a disability isn't permanent.
Your first step is to meet with your child's teacher and an administrator so you can request a 504 Evaluation.
Key Tip: Schools are not legally required to evaluate your child based upon your request alone. A school must be convinced that your child is suffering from an impairment that is substantially limiting a “major life activity" for your child. When requesting a 504 Evaluation, you should provide documentation from your child's doctor; this should explain the nature of your child’s illness and detail exactly how the condition impairs her education and other life activities.
504 Evaluations cover a lot of ground: teacher reports, academic assessment, classroom observations, discipline referrals, doctor reports, and recommendations. A child's physical condition, social and cultural background, and adaptive behavior are also considered. The evaluation will be conducted by a 504 Team, which can include teachers, administrators, special education instructors, physicians, psychologists, parents, and other pertinent members of the community (such as counselors).
The purpose of a 504 Evaluation is to determine the following:
If your child has a disability
What the specific disability is
Whether or not this disability substantially limits her educational performance
Once the evaluation is concluded, and it is determined that your child falls under Section 504, an educational plan must be set up.
A 504 Plan is specific to your child. It is designed by a 504 Team of professionals involved in your child's life, health, and education. It is also a legally-binding document.
Key Tip: Schools do not have to include parents in the evaluation or in the team of professionals who will create a 504 Plan. That’s why you should ask to be made a part of the 504 Team, and express exactly what you can contribute and why your input is necessary.
Your child's 504 Plan should include:
The exact disability/impairment your child faces.
Specific accommodations that will be made, exactly how they will be provided, and who will provide them.
The name of your child's case manager (the person responsible for overseeing the 504 Plan).
Every 504 Plan is unique to a particular child. There is no standard 504 Plan, and there are no basic accommodations that a child is “guaranteed" under the law. What the law requires is that every child be given access to Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Roughly, this means that school districts are required to supply accommodations, aids, and services that meet the educational needs of your child.
In other words, specialized tutoring is not guaranteed to every child who qualifies for a 504 Plan. That said, if the 504 Team determines that specialized tutoring is an accommodation that your child needs in order to have the same access to education as other children, then your school district is legally bound to supply specialized tutoring.
A 504 Plan must be distributed to your child's teachers and other support staff. Educators are legally required to follow the 504 Plan. Failure to do so is a violation of federal law.
A 504 Plan is not set in stone. It should be continually examined by the 504 Team and adjusted as necessary. Students are re-evaluated every one to three years, or sooner if the parents and teacher request it. Re-evaluation can occur less often if the school and parents agree it's not necessary.
We hope that your child's illness passes and she gets better. Regardless, a 504 Plan does not expire. In the case of a chronic illness that affects your child intermittently, a 504 Plan remains in place on an ongoing basis. You are not required to ask for a new initial evaluation each time your child experiences a recurrence. If your child recovers fully, she may no longer need the 504 Plan.
The best path forward is to stay in constant contact with teachers, administrators, and your child's case manager. Dealing with an extended illness can be overwhelming, but there are resources in place to help you and your child. Don't be afraid to utilize them.