On August 16, 2019, the New York State Education Department (“SED”), in conjunction with other State agencies, released additional guidance (available HERE) regarding the recent changes to New York State’s Public Health Law, which repealed the religious exemption from vaccinations for school-age children. Other guidance on this topic was previously released by the State on June 18 (available HERE) and July 22 (available HERE).
Under the new law, parents who choose not to vaccinate a student with a disability must still ensure children of compulsory school receive an education. Students who remain unvaccinated and without a medical exemption must now be homeschooled (i.e., “home instructed”) by their parents. But the change in law prompted the question of whether school districts are obligated to provide special education services, including related services, to homeschooled students who are unimmunized. SED did not expressly address this issue in its two previous guidance documents.
SED has now confirmed that unimmunized students with disabilities who are provided home instruction from their parents are still entitled to receive special education services in accordance with an individualized education services program (“IESP”) developed by the district of residence’s committee on special education. However, unlike immunized students, these students cannot be on school grounds or be on school buses to travel to the school district to receive their designated special education related services.
For other homeschooled students with disabilities who are immunized, the board of education determines where the special education services will be provided. Usually, the district provides the services either at the student’s home or at a school district building depending on the type of service and its frequency. The board of education has the discretion to designate where the services will be provided based on the most efficient and effective strategy. Cost savings to the school district would be one factor the board of education considers in making this efficiency determination.
For unimmunized students with disabilities with IESPs, the SED guidance states that these students cannot be on school grounds; so districts no longer have the discretion to determine that their special education related services can be provided at a school. The board of education’s discretion is now limited in making these decisions on location of services — which could be the student’s home, a service provider’s office, or public gathering sites such as community centers or libraries. Furthermore, this latest guidance states that if the board of education determines to provide the services at an alternate site, not the student’s home, the district remains responsible for providing transportation unless the parent drives the student to the alternate site. However, according to SED, the student could not be transported on a school bus with other students; so other means of district-funded transportation would need to be provided.
SED did not include much legal analysis in support of this guidance. Instead, SED simply concluded that homeschooled students are entitled to special education services in conjunction with the academic instruction provided by their parents. In reaching this conclusion, SED sidestepped a number of important issues including whether homeschooled students receiving special education services are deemed “enrolled” in school, which would seemingly trigger a duty to be vaccinated. Similarly, SED failed to consider the many public policy concerns (e.g., exposing students and staff members to unvaccinated students) which prompted the recent change in law.
Lastly, SED acknowledged that parents of homeschooled students are generally required to request special education services by June 1 preceding the school year for which the request for services is made. In light of the timing of these recent developments, SED has encouraged school districts to honor untimely parental requests for the 2019-2020 school year if those requests were prompted by the repeal of the religious exemption to the vaccination requirements.