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Schools Struggle to Educate Students With Disabilities Amid Pandemic

Updated: May 19, 2020

Advocates worry that the 7 million students with disabilities will be left behind in distance learning.

"The reality is that most likely whenever kids go back to school after the coronavirus, there is going to be regression for all kids," Miriam Rollin, director of the Education Civil Rights Alliance, says. "But the problem is kids with disabilities are starting further behind and they're likely to regress even more."

SETTING UP DISTANCE learning for the 55 million students who were forced out of school by the coronavirus pandemic is a challenge, but it's even more of a challenge for educators to figure out how to best educate the 7 million students with disabilities. And those students, who are less likely to be able to access online education, are also at much greater risk of falling behind. "I like to look at things realistically," Eriel Jeffrey, a special education teacher and coordinator at the John F. Kennedy High School in Montgomery County, Maryland, says. "I'm not really sure what else we can do to really help and give the kids the services that are usually what they get in school because of contact. The kids we work with need that close proximity that we can't provide right now."

"I am nervous," she continues. "The ones that will fare well are the ones that are in households where somebody is able to work with them specifically and consistently throughout this and can provide structure." "I'm really concerned about the ones who aren't able to have that because their parents are working or sometimes there is a language barrier because they live in a house where English is not the first spoken language. They might be the only one in the house to speak that language. My heart goes out to them because I know it's really difficult."

At issue are a confluence of circumstances: The sudden crush of COVID-19 cases forced schools to close with little to no time to plan for how they would transition students to a comprehensive and effective distance learning model, especially for students with disabilities who have individualized learning plans tailored to their specific needs.

While some districts sent students home with workbooks that covered a few weeks worth of material, others emailed parents links to online learning programs or established virtual classes through conference platforms like Zoom and Google. For rural school districts and those that serve large numbers of poor students whose families may not have a home internet connection, many districts were quick to hand out thousands of Chromebooks, laptops and other tablets, and partner with internet companies to set up WiFi hotspots for the estimated 12 million children nationwide that lack one.

Meanwhile, largely lost in the rapid response to establish something – anything – that would allow students to continue learning, were students with disabilities, the very students who research shows are most negatively impacted by lost learning time. In fact, only 27% of parents of children in public schools in New York reported that schools were providing instructional materials for students with disabilities, according to a poll of 1,200 parents commissioned by The Education Trust and conducted by Global Strategy Group from March 25 to April 1. A separate poll they conducted among 1,200 parents in California during the same timespan shows that just 24% reported that schools were providing instructional material for students with disabilities. "The reality is that most likely whenever kids go back to school after the coronavirus, there is going to be regression for all kids," Miriam Rollin, director of the Education Civil Rights Alliance, says. "But the problem is kids with disabilities are starting further behind and they're likely to regress even more. That's why it's such a moral and legal imperative to make sure schools are doing everything possible."

For students with disabilities, needs vary greatly based on the specific impairment – encompassing everything from auditory to visual to cognitive to physical and more. As a result, individualized education plans run the gamut, from extra time for tests and personalized tutoring, to a special education aide dedicated to a student for the entirety of the school day.

Under federal law, schools must provide students with disabilities with a "free and appropriate public education," and some districts – rightly or wrongly – have been slow to mobilize distance learning for all students, fearing the ire of federal regulators if they provide distance learning without tailoring it for students who have individualized education plans. "This isn't a yes or no question," Rollin says. "The answer is yes, we're going to do this. So the only question is how and figuring that out with maximum creativity and making it work to the extent that it can under these circumstances."

"We get that's going to look very different than when schools were open, but that doesn't mean you do nothing," she continues. "It means actually making individualized outreach to students and their parents and figuring out what can be done to prevent regression." Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, after hearing reports that some districts weren't pursuing distance learning for any students because they lacked the capacity to personalize it for students with disabilities, scolded educators during one of the daily coronavirus briefings last month at the White House.

"Nothing issued by this department should in any way prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction," she clarified. "We need schools to educate all students out of principle, rather than educate no students out of fear." The guidance subsequently issued by the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights stipulates that schools "should not opt to close or decline to provide distance instruction, at the expense of students, to address matters pertaining to services for students with disabilities."

But the guidance also underscores that the department "recognizes that exceptional circumstances may affect how special education and related services and supports are provided to students with disabilities," and promises to offer "flexibility" when it comes to delivering that support. Advocates for students with disabilities have been about what exactly that flexibility means, and whether it will exempt school districts from their responsibilities to some of the most vulnerable students.

Notably, the relief package that Congress passed last month to bolster the economy amidst the coronavirus pandemic tasks DeVos with recommending to Congress the types of waivers it should grant to states and school districts to relieve them from certain federal mandates that might be impossible to meet because of schools being closed for months at a time. Some education groups, including the AASA School Superintendents Association, are urging DeVos to recommend to Congress that schools be granted flexibility under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the federal law that ensures students receive a robust education.

"We're not talking about flexibility from providing every single service for every single child," Noelle Ellerson Ng, associate executive director of policy and advocacy at the superintendents association says. "We're talking about flexibilities for our students who are the most medically fragile who have the most severe physical and cognitive disabilities. These are kids who have individualized education plans who require their services to be provided in-person, hand over hand, and that's something you just cannot legally do right now. So if you legally can't be in school, and you actually can't legally implement the IEP, who's liable?"

"You might be talking about students who are blind and deaf and they need a teacher aide right by them," she continues. "You might have a child who is non-verbal, so they need to visually see someone signing in front of them, or their vision is bad and they can't access online. Superintendents are trying to figure out how we can navigate IDEA without having the perfect be the enemy of the very, very good."

Some examples of the flexibilities they're seeking include the ability to retroactively change individualized education plans based on limitations stemming from the coronavirus outbreak and extend various federal timelines that outline when specific services are due for students with disabilities.

"We're talking about narrow in scope, time-limited flexibility," Ellerson Ng says. "Things we are looking for are ways you can provide a little bit of common sense flexibility to absolutely hold schools accountable. This population needs to be served."

Some school superintendents complain that advocates for students with disabilities are treating the situation as a zero sum game – either students with disabilities receive as robust an education as they were when schools were open, or districts aren't meeting their federal obligations – while advocates say they understand these are unprecedented times but that doesn't mean district leaders and others can flout the education and civil rights of students with disabilities.

"Am I going to say there won't be any lawsuits if schools try and don't get it done," Rollin asks. "No, I'm not going to say that. But what I am going to say is the best strategy to avoid liability is to do their best." With so little information available for teachers about how to effectively establish distance learning for students with disabilities, most, including Jeffrey, have been left to tackle it themselves, learning as they go. "Districts are really struggling," Lindsay Jones, president and CEO of the National Center for Learning Disabilities, says. "They are working really hard and I think they could use more support, especially from the federal government. But there isn't a playbook."

Jones and the leaders of about a dozen other advocacy organizations for students with disabilities launched a web site earlier this week that tracks best practices in real-time as districts across the country experiment to figure out what strategies are most effective. "The key to this situation is going to be sharing information about what's working in real time," Jones says. "We have to get this information out to districts because we don't have really strong evidence about how to deliver special education instruction online."

Jeffrey says that despite the incredible challenges, most of her students with disabilities are receiving some type of instruction. All of her students have access to school-issued Chromebooks, for example, or have a family computer, and can log into Zoom meetings. Those who need it have talk-to-text programs. For those with more severe cognitive disabilities, she says, she emails parents links to lessons to print out and then follows up with the parents after they help their children through it, either by email or text. The key, she says, is maintaining constant communication with parents, school staff and school leadership in order to constantly fine tune strategy.

"Everything changes if not every hour than every other hour," Jeffrey says. "Logistics are constantly changing and we're constantly evolving. It takes a lot of flexibility, but I think each day gets a little bit better. "

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