Can Digital Accessibility Help Private Schools Get the Required Financial Aid During the Pandemic?
Schools in the United States have been constantly opening and closing throughout the pandemic. Recently, school districts have decided to reopen the schools with weekly COVID testings. However, with the rising numbers of Covid-19 cases, people are speculating that the Government might have to close the schools again.
The continuous change of directives has created difficult situations for students and schools alike. Even though things might not be as challenging for public schools, private schools have been struggling to make ends meet. Many parents are expecting refunds or freeze on the tuition fees they have paid for the year.
However, private schools have to keep paying salaries, wages, and costs of maintenance for the school premises. It has created a lot of financial pressure for private schools and might result in the permanent closure of the institutions unless they receive financial assistance of some form.
While several states and the Federal Government have decided to direct financial aid to private schools, there are terms and conditions attached. Schools have to comply with the various civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination of all kinds, including those against students with disabilities.
Since most of the schools have shifted their student programs to e-learning methods to facilitate learning from home, they need to ensure that their digital infrastructure is accessible to all students, including those with disabilities. That includes websites, video classes, audio lessons, tests, quizzes, and any other means that they might be using.
If a school does not comply with the current laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or section 508 and 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, they might have to face legal charges. These lawsuits can not only prevent a private school from getting the much needed financial aid but also prove expensive in terms of paying damages, legal fees, and other associated costs.
The American Government signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) act on the 27th of March 2020, which allocated $2.2 trillion towards emergency relief funds. Any individual, business, or organization, including private schools, can request for allocation of funds when faced with a financial crisis, as long as they meet the requirements.
Under the CARES act, schools can also apply for financial aid through the Small Business Administration (SBA) programs of the United States, including Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL) and the Payment Protection Program (PPP) schemes.
Any of these loans are 100% forgivable if the institution can provide evidence that the funds have been utilized for payroll purposes or any other business expense from a list of approved expenditures. Therefore these loans can prove to be a lifeline for schools that are struggling with financial problems during the pandemic.
However, before applying for financial assistance, schools must be aware of the conditions that come with them. The first and foremost of these obligations is that Federal funds cannot get used in a way that supports discrimination of any kind.
Therefore any school that applies for or accepts SBA, PPP, or EIDL loans need to ensure that they do not support any form of discrimination in their educational methods.
Most of the American laws related to disabilities do not specify methods to make any digital means accessible to people with disabilities. Their initial efforts were to ensure that the premises were accessible to visitors who lived with disabilities. However, in the current times, legal institutions have started recognizing that digital methods are often an extension of ways to access the facilities provided by those premises.
For example, a school website is an extension of the institute, where people can get all the information that they would usually gather at the premises. Therefore people with disabilities must be able to obtain that information with ease.
Schools must also ensure that any e-learning methods adopted must get optimized for accessibility. For example, any video lessons should contain relevant closed-captions and transcripts for people with audio or visual disabilities. Any tests or quizzes published on the school website must have the required contrast ratios with the background.
Many school authorities are not sure how to make their websites accessible to people with disabilities. They are not aware that the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has created a list of criteria called Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) that helps anyone understand how to make a website accessible.
The current list of criteria (WCAG 2.1) has a list of all the aspects that a website must meet to be deemed accessible by the ADA, section 508, or any other legal institution in America. School authorities also feel that that website accessibility can be difficult to achieve, and they might have to redesign their websites and other digital infrastructure.
While they would have been true a few years ago, there are easier solutions available these days. Companies like accessiBe and UserWay have created systems that can automatically make any website compliant with all the legal requirements of America (ADA compliance). All they need to do is to add a few lines of code to the website programming, which will automatically make all the features of the website accessible to people with disabilities.
Since such a simple solution can make a school compliant with the legal requirements, getting the required financial assistance can be achieved easily.
With the right monetary aid, private schools can ensure that they continue to pay their staff and maintain their premises till the time when schools can reopen their doors for students and resume their regular ways of operations.