Serving Special Education Students During COVID-19 Shutdowns

Serving Special Education Students During COVID-19 Shutdowns

Alarm bells are ringing in school communities across the country due to the upheaval wrought by the COVID-19 crisis. For many, a particular area of concern centers on students with special education needs.

Here’s a look at why that is, and what some teachers and parents are doing about it.

Sudden school closures

The threat posed by the ongoing pandemic became more obvious throughout March, when many of the nation's states and local school districts decided to shutter schools in order to slow the spread of COVID-19.

As National Public Radio education reporter Anya Kamenetz reported, this phenomenon extends beyond the United States, with “roughly 9 out of 10 schoolchildren worldwide” currently at home rather than in class. Moreover, among the education experts from all over the world who were interviewed by Kamenetz, the general consensus seemed to be that this long-term disruption in formal schooling may impact the most vulnerable students for years to come.

At risk: Students with special education needs

Many students with special education needs fall into the vulnerable student category, as Mark Keierleber recently wrote for education news outlet The 74 Million. In his piece, Keierleber profiled Gabriel—a Seattle boy with a developmental delay who typically receives a wide range of supportive services from his public school, but whose education “came to an immediate halt” as a result of COVID-19 closures. According to Keierleber, millions of students with special education needs are in a similar situation, and their remote intervention plans range from nonexistent to cautiously patched together.

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In Seattle, Gabriel's mother is advocating for extended learning time in the summer, should schools reopen by then. In other areas of the country, instruction is being provided electronically via smartphone, and parents of learners with special education needs are expected to be on hand to guide students through the lessons.

Shift to online learning raises questions

Many school districts have undergone a rapid shift to distance learning in a bid to allow students to complete the school year. According to The 74 Million, Kathleen Airhart—a special education expert with the Council of Chief State School Officers—believes many students with special education needs will weather this transition well. However, for those with more pronounced or complex needs, switching to an online support model is likely to be challenging. After all, many of the various forms of support that go beyond classroom instruction (for example, speech therapy and behavioral interventions) are not easily adapted to video conferencing or other digital formats. Moreover, as special education experts have pointed out, some students need frequent person-to-person contact such as reminders and positive encouragement to stay on track and focused.

To that end, a recent EdSource piece spotlighted how one California-based special education teacher is working to ensure her students maintain both a schedule and a link to their schoolwork. In the wake of her school's shutdown, Yasmir Navas put together boxes filled with supplies and instructional materials that she hopes will keep learners from becoming “dysregulated.”

Waivers for special education?

In addition to the day-to-day concerns associated with facilitating remote learning while schools remain closed, a new source of anxiety has arisen for many in the special education community: the possibility that the federal education department will be granted waivers from aspects of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos reportedly requested the waivers as part of the government’s $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill, which is intended to provide emergency support to families and communities across the country. Although any waivers will have to be approved by Congress, the mere possibility of schools being granted an exemption from any part of their IDEA-mandated obligation to provide students with an education that fits their unique needs is causing fear and uncertainty. 

According to New York Times reporter Erica Green, a national organization of school superintendents has contended that the waivers will allow for more time to evaluate (and ultimately further accommodate) students' needs, while school districts currently unable to provide one-on-one aides and other legally mandated services fear being sued in lieu of an exemption. However, many parents who fought long and hard to get support for their children fear all will be lost if the waivers come to pass. One parent interviewed by Green made it clear that while she does not expect her nonverbal son to be provided exactly the same services via distance learning that he received at school, she still wants to ensure that his needs will be met—if not now, when school is back in session.

Questions abound

This is clearly a time of many unknowns. How can teachers continue adequately serving students with special education needs? Which distance learning tools—including phone calls, lesson packets, and audio books—will be made available to students in need? And how will potential waivers from legal requirements mandated by federal special education legislation impact teachers, students, and families?


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