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Foundations: Remember Special Education in Your COVID and Post-COVID Investments

This story originally appeared in the FSG Blog on May 12, 2020 by Ursala Wright.


In March 2020, I wrote a blog that spoke to the philanthropic community’s need to support the quakes and tremors caused by the coronavirus pandemic. One such tremor presenting itself can be found in the realm of special education—a decades-long, federally guaranteed equity intervention that touches nearly 14% of all public school students. While the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that a free appropriate public education be provided to eligible children with disabilities, many school districts are struggling to honor this mandate since traditional methods for delivering special education and related services have been completely disrupted by COVID-19-related school closures.

To help U.S. philanthropy understand how to best deploy COVID and post-COVID response efforts in public education that are inclusive of students requiring accommodations, FSG sought counsel from leaders of three organizations that work to ensure special education students have equitable access to and supportive conditions from public education: Heather Graham of Oak Foundation, Lauren Morando Rhim of National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools (NCSECS), and Lindsay Jones of National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD).


What do you believe to be the biggest issues facing public education post-COVID-19?

Oak: One of the biggest issues facing public education post-COVID-19 will be the growing opportunity gap between students. The pandemic is bringing to light and exacerbating inequities that have long existed. The disparities students face in terms of access to quality education have never been more pronounced as some students pivot to distance learning with ease while others face barriers. Drivers of these divides include, but are not limited to, uneven access to broadband and technology, disparate approaches to remote teaching and learning, and a wholesale lack of supports for some educators and families.


NCSECS: Though it feels trite to say so at this point, the first challenge will be to meet kids where they are and address the trauma they’ve been through. We need to address who they are as students and humans, and where they are as learners before we move forward. Only then can we figure out how to set them up to be successful in school.


Another major issue will be recognizing that we can’t simply go back to business as usual. Until there is a vaccine, we will likely face social distancing, rolling closures, and economic hardship. Schools need to plan for a variety of scenarios and be prepared to deal with ongoing impacts, both on education delivery and on students’ lives outside of school.

At the same time, it’s essential to recognize the central role schools play in keeping a community going. After Hurricane Katrina, I conducted research in New Orleans on how schools worked to restore services and found that community pressure—particularly from the local universities—led public schools to reopen before much else. If children can’t go to school, many parents can’t go to work. Finding a safe way to get students back in school will be an important part of keeping the economy running.


NCLD: We need to quickly understand the extent of “learning loss” produced by months of out-of-school time and immediately begin planning for accelerated instruction (over an extended period of time) to close gaps and ensure a trajectory toward credit accumulation and graduation. There has also been a major disruption to our current system of grading, with deep implications for monitoring student progress toward mastery of curricula as well as serious challenges for transitions to postsecondary education and the workplace. We must ensure that 10th and 11th graders are taking the right classes, have access to career counseling, are completing internships and other pathways to certification and licensure, and are getting the exposure they need to college and career opportunities.


Do you believe the aforementioned issues are the most salient issues for those students with special needs? In not, how do they differ?

Oak: The above challenges are more pronounced for students with special needs. In our work at Oak Foundation, we are particularly focused on students with learning differences who experience additional adversity due to racism and poverty. The IDEA entitles students with disabilities to a “Free Appropriate Public Education that is tailored to their needs,” however, many districts are struggling to reach and support these students during the pandemic. Many special needs students have accommodation plans (e.g., IEPs, 504s) to support their learning and, in many cases, educators are struggling to adapt the plans to a remote setting.


NCSECS: All of those issues will apply to students with disabilities—lack of a consistent learning environment, the effects of trauma, the need to address social-emotional needs first—it’s a matter of degree of difficulty. For our most complex learners, by definition, learning is harder. These students need extra support to re-introduce learning routines and structures. It will be exponentially more difficult for kids with disabilities, for whom learning is already harder, to adapt from going to brick and mortar to a remote setting, and it will also be harder for them to return to school. Educators will need to meet students where they are and understand that individual students will experience different levels of impact from this crisis.


NCLD: Each of these issues is salient for students with special needs, just as it is for their peers without special needs. The issues are, however, exacerbated by students not having access to skilled professionals (e.g., special educators, tutors, therapists, related service providers) whose expertise is essential to ensuring that these students are not overlooked, or worse, ignored when ‘things get tough’ and the education system is overburdened by unexpected challenges.


Students who are often referred to as “marginalized” (e.g., low-income, homeless, migrant, abused, and neglected) and English learners face similar challenges regarding access to needed support. Students with disabilities, however, are often faced with the unique challenges inherent to assuring their rights and protections under the law.


How might the philanthropic community help to mitigate the coronavirus’s negative impact on children with special needs?

Oak: Inequities have been exposed like never before and we, in philanthropy, should seize this moment to do things differently. There is an opportunity to reassess and innovate to better serve students during the crisis and beyond. During this time, it is important for philanthropy to elevate the importance of reaching every student, particularly those who are struggling, through both academic and whole child approaches. We can do this by supporting the work of organizations who are working on behalf of students with special needs to advocate on their behalf, to protect their civil rights, and to aide families. Philanthropy can also support efforts aimed at helping educators understand how to effectively serve students with special needs.


NCSECS: The philanthropic community needs to rally around the idea that when they are giving dollars, those dollars must work for kids with disabilities as well as kids without them. Students with disabilities should not be a separate silo. We need to encourage donors to invest in all students, including the roughly 20% of Americans who learn differently. Funding must be tied to all students from the start. Specifically, funders should ask grant applicants about how they accommodate students’ learning differences, how they will invest in the success of these students, and how they will track progress.


Funders should also be aware that traditional grant performance metrics can lead to the exclusion of students with disabilities. Instead of focusing on absolute improvements, the COVID-19 context requires a new approach to performance and should be nuanced enough to reflect that different students will have different growth trajectories while holding high expectations for the progress of students with disabilities.