OCR Provides Practical Pointers for Postsecondary Institutions to Meet Civil Rights Obligations In Distance Learning Environments

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights recently issued a FAQ in its continuing effort to address civil rights issues during the COVID-19 pandemic.  The new guidance focused on disability accommodations, Title IX, and harassment issues.

The overall message was to again remind postsecondary institutions to “stay the course” with their civil rights obligations.  Institutions must continue to engage in the interactive process and provide disability accommodations that do not fundamentally alter the academic program and/or are undue burdens.  Institutions must also continue to receive, investigate, and resolve harassment complaints.  Institutions should adapt their policies to the new distance learning environment, and, if they do, they must inform students, faculty, and staff of any changes.

OCR also offered practical advice for how institutions can meet their civil rights obligations (and take advantage of new technology in doing so): 

Disability Rights During Distance Learning

  • Provide distance learning even if the same accommodations provided in an on-campus environment may not be available in the distance learning environment.
  • Provide students with disabilities an equal opportunity to access educational programs by providing accommodations for distance learning.
  • Take advantage of new technologies, such as captioning of video or audio readers for documents. These new technologies can be considered on a case-by-case basis to supplement or even replace traditional accommodations (e.g., ASL interpreters). Research, creativity, and dialogue are critical to identifying effective accommodations for students with disabilities.
  • Fundamental alteration and undue burden are still grounds for denying accommodation requests.

Harassment During Distance Learning

  • Continue receiving and pursuing harassment investigations and hearings.
  • Make good-faith efforts to receive, investigate, and adjudicate harassment claims in a reasonably timely manner.
  • Take advantage of technology when appropriate, such as to conduct remote interviews and hearings. This technology must be employed in a timely and equitable manner, ensuring due process and privacy safeguards are in place.
  • Communicate with students about changes to the process, method, and timing for instituting a harassment claim and its subsequent investigation.
  • No-contact or no-communication agreements/orders should remain enforced unless changes are required for operational adjustments relating to distance learning.