As school closures and other public health measures due to the pandemic continue across the country, so too do the effects on special education. A ParentTogether Action survey found that in the spring, more than half (59%) of students with disabilities were receiving only some or none of the services to which they were entitled, noted a December article in the Hechinger Report. In another survey by the American Institutes for Research, nearly 75% of 744 school districts found it was substantially more difficult to provide accommodations their students with disabilities needed, the article reported.
Challenges, Disruptions, and Frustrations
Minnesota parents and educators described some of those difficulties in a January article on the DisabilityScoop website, describing issues from students’ inability to express themselves on Zoom to switching from in-person to remote learning and back again. David Perry said his family hired a personal care assistant to help their son, Nico, who has Down syndrome and autism and communicates mostly nonverbally, with distance learning. “I just want my son educated — that is really my driving force,” Perry said.
It has posed challenges for parents and teachers as well, the article said, among them the need to create individualized education programs for distance, hybrid, and in-person learning. Teachers and aides also find it more difficult to virtually assess students’ moods and needs. Parents are caught in competing needs: overseeing their children’s education, which often requires sitting by their side throughout their school day, or getting their own work done.
Some schools have responded by opening their doors to special education students, but that has come with its own difficulties. In Seattle, for example, the public school system prioritized kids with disabilities in its reopening plan but, by October, only one student was receiving services. Neighboring school systems were doing better by concentrating services at a few schools rather than trying to provide them at students’ home schools, according to The Seattle Times.
Some Minnesota school districts have also opened school buildings to some students for in-person help with online learning four days a week, and Minnesota Governor Tim Walz announced that the state’s elementary schools would be able to open in mid-January for in-person learning if they meet safety requirements.
Even children who have gone back to in-person school have experienced disruptions due to COVID-19 outbreaks, hybrid schedules, and the loss of socialization and physical interactions, said Sherri Brady, the Southern California representative for the Rett Syndrome Foundation, in a December DisabiityScoop article. She believes that extra support will be needed for children with disabilities once school resumes.
An Associated Press article described a movement by some families to get help in court. More than 500 families in 35 states signed on to a class-action lawsuit that named every state education department in the country in an effort to get a court order to open schools for special needs students or issue vouchers so parents can hire help. While the lawsuit was dismissed, it is a sign of the growing frustration that parents feel about their children’s loss of education, therapy, and socialization.
Educators quoted in the Associated Press article said that it may be impossible to reverse the regressions or make up the education that would have been provided. Educators will need to make individual decisions based on where a student is today, compared with their status before services stopped or changed, said Phyllis Wolfram, executive director of the Council of Administrators of Special Education.
Glimmers of Good News Amid the Gloom
Parents and advocates noted in the December Disability Scoop article that after 10 months of staying at home, families are adjusting to new routines and have put in place creative supports, from leaning on family or community members for help to using telehealth for therapy and other specialist appointments. Still, that only applies to families with resources, said Crystal Smith, program manager at a Los Angeles family resource center that provides guidance and support to families of children with disabilities. She and her colleagues are busier than ever trying to help families meet basic needs, like food, learning kits, and access to services.
Brian Rappe, a special education teacher in Minnesota, said in the January DisabilityScoop article that he has noticed that students are more willing to ask for help. In the same article, Tara Tuchel, a Minnesota-based speech-language pathologist, noted that her relationships with parents are stronger and she’s been able to create more individualized strategies for her students.
Using Lessons from the Pandemic to Improve Special Education
Could the strains, stresses, and setbacks brought on by the pandemic result in systemic improvements for special education? Advocates hope so. “How do we take what we’re doing in this moment and use this chance to prioritize equity and put marginalized students first, so that building our system back, they are at the center of it, rather than at the margins?” Meghan Whittaker, the director of policy and advocacy at the National Center for Learning Disabilities, said in the Hechinger Report article.
The article described an effort by some states to implement “individualized distance learning plans,” which spell out more clearly than IEPs do how schools and families can work together to support their children with disabilities. Teachers have also adapted, the article noted, by recording videos for children who missed synchronous lessons, for example, and adjusting deadlines to fit students’ schedules.
Continuing this kind of flexible, creative approach would benefit children with disabilities and everyone else, said Julie Causton, chief executive of Inclusive Schooling, an education consultancy, and a former professor of special education at Syracuse University, in the Hechinger Report article. Doing so will require school systems and educators to rethink special education as meeting each student’s individualized needs, the article noted.
While there is still quite a bit of tunnel to get through before we see the light, these articles illustrate that adaptations made for the pandemic disruptions may very well result in lasting positive change.
Sherri Alms is the freelance editor of The OARacle, a role she took on in 2007. She has been a freelance writer and editor for more than 20 years.