The U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) recently issued guidance regarding how schools should address situations where a student with a disability is unvaccinated. This guidance recognizes that there are certain medical conditions where a disabled student should not get vaccinated, such as HIV/AIDS, Leukemia, or certain types of cancers. OCR states that in these instances, it may be appropriate to exempt the disabled student from the immunization requirements based on medical reasons. However, OCR states, school districts “must make reasonable modifications to policies, practices, or procedures that otherwise require vaccinations, in order for these students to attend school.”
By making the above comments, OCR is reminding schools that they must take into consideration whether a child is unvaccinated due to disability or medical reasons and not prevent the student from attending school as a result. According to OCR, the failure of schools to take this into account could expose the school district to a potential disability discrimination action.
In the event of an outbreak (or potential outbreak), OCR states that schools must follow existing rules and procedures “in a non-discriminatory manner.” Schools should seek guidance from public health officials on “whether, for these students with disabilities, school officials can continue to safely make a reasonable modification to a policy, practice, or procedure that otherwise requires vaccinations in order to attend school.” Again, this comment appears to be a warning to schools to not treat disabled students differently or more severely when there is risk of a disease outbreak.
Despite OCR’s preference that disabled students attend school, even when unvaccinated, the agency does recognize that there may be instances where a student should remain home due to a communicable disease, such as measles. In this instance, OCR warns that schools “must maintain continuity of learning by providing educational services to that student.” The school must also assure that the disabled student continues to receive a “free appropriate public education.” OCR encourages schools to “think creatively about how to sustain student learning and achievement during prolonged absences and how to provide needed additional academic supports upon the student’s return. Depending on the student’s needs and the length of the exclusions, strategies can range from sending copies of assignments to students to web‐based distance learning course work.”