Letter Text (PDF)

Washington (September 15, 2023) – Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, led his colleagues Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and John Fetterman (D-Penn.) today in writing to the Department of Education and the Department of Justice to underscore the need for the Departments to issue guidance to colleges and universities on their policies regarding voluntary medical leaves of absence (MLOA). Voluntary MLOAs provide college and university students the opportunity to voluntarily take temporary leave from their coursework to receive treatment or support for a health condition. For many students, taking a voluntary MLOA improves academic performance and psychological well-being. However, current policies at colleges and universities may unnecessarily restrict students from taking and returning from these leaves by creating administrative, financial, immigration, and professional barriers.

“Current college and universities policies for voluntary medical leaves of absence […] unduly place obstacles for students, particularly disabled students, who wish to take these leaves,” the senators wrote in their letter. “These barriers jeopardize their health and well-being. The Departments of Education and Justice should strengthen non-discrimination protections for these students and issue voluntary MLOA guidance, including policy reforms to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, to support and empower students in making decisions about what is best for their health and safety.”

“Lack of awareness of voluntary MLOA policies, administrative barriers, social isolation, financial and immigration hurdles, and fear of retaliation create real and significant barriers for students who need support. They should not have to choose between their health and education. The Departments of Education and Justice can and should play a role in supporting college and university voluntary MLOA policies that are available and accessible to all students, including those who are disabled and immunocompromised,” they continued. 

Specifically, the senators requested the Departments of Education and Justice respond in writing to the following questions by October 27, 2023:

  1. What steps, if any, have the Departments of Education and Justice taken to reform accommodation and voluntary MLOA policies to support disabled or immunocompromised students?
  2. What consideration has the Department of Education given to voluntary MLOAs as part of Section 504 reform efforts?
  3. What data has the Department of Education compiled regarding voluntary MLOAs?
    1. What voluntary MLOA disparities exist, including, but not limited to, disparities based on race, ethnicity, immigration status, sex, gender, or income?
    2. What steps have been taken to address or review involuntary MLOA policies for international students?
  4. What efforts have the Departments of Education or Justice made to meet with stakeholders, including leaders of student bodies, student government associations, student councils, graduate student unions, students with disabilities, members of the disability community, and leaders of colleges and universities on the issue of voluntary MLOAs?

In November 2022, Senator Markey wrote to the Department of Education and Department of Justice stressing the need for stronger policies to avoid limiting students’ access to higher education based on their disability through institutions’ use of involuntary MLOAs. In March 2023, the Departments responded, outlining enforcement actions they had taken to enforce disabled students’ civil rights, issuing a fact sheet to schools on how to protect students with mental health disabilities, and receiving comment on Section 504 regulation reforms.