The Challenges of Special Education During School Closures

Speech therapist working with a child

It’s not unusual for parents and teachers to have concerns about “summer slide” — the academic regression that occurs for some students during the months when they are out of school. This year, since schools closed months early due to COVID-19, their concerns are magnified. Though most school systems provided online learning, statistics show that teachers and parents don’t feel especially satisfied with the way this went.

According to a May 26 USA Today survey, “Sixty percent of parents and 86 percent of teachers were concerned about children and 46 percent of parents and 76 percent of teachers say distance learning is causing the children to fall behind. Seventy-three percent of parents and 64 percent of teachers say the children will eventually be able to make up any lost ground.”

And concerns are greater for students with disabilities. “For students with special needs—roughly 7 million in the U.S. ages 3 to 21—the coronavirus pandemic, and its attendant school closures, can be especially scary,” writes Faith Hill for The Atlantic.

“At school, they get individualized attention from professionals who are trained in, and deeply familiar with, their unique ways of thinking, perceiving, and processing. But no amount of love and care at home can turn the average parent into a special-education teacher overnight. Nor can it enable them to practice occupational, speech, or physical therapy—services that are provided in many schools, but aren’t always covered by insurance and can therefore be otherwise out of reach.”

In late May, ParentsTogether, a nonprofit organization that provides news and information to parents, released the results of  a survey of 1,500 members across the United States. The survey revealed that families with children in special education are “facing major challenges.”

  • Just 20% of parents whose children have an Individualized Educational Program (IEP) or are entitled to other special education services say that they are receiving those services.
  • 39% are not receiving any support at all.
  • Children who qualify for individual learning plans are also:
    • Twice as likely as their peers to be doing little or no remote learning (35% vs. 17%).
    • Twice as likely to say that distance learning is going poorly (40% vs. 19% for those without IEPs).
    • Almost twice as concerned about their kids’ mental health (40% vs. 23% for those without IEPs).

So, what can be done to help these 7 million or so students? There’s no easy answer. Though some parents and teachers want to see children back in school ASAP, others say health concerns eclipse everything else. Returning to school before the virus is fully contained, and/or a vaccine or cure is discovered, is especially worrisome for parents of children who are medically fragile.

Yet, in a piece for the Global Partnership for Education, Charlotte McClain-Nhlapo, Global Disability Advisor of the World Bank Group writes that the pandemic may provide us with an opportunity to rethink the way special education services are delivered and to make global education “truly disability inclusive.”

McClain-Nhlapo recommends the following measures:

  • Providing support to education systems to ensure that distance learning is accessible, teachers are trained and supported to remotely teach children with disabilities and ensuring that caregivers are supported as well.
  • Providing the right mechanisms for inclusive wash, nutrition, mental health, and psychosocial support for children with disabilities and their families.
  • Reallocating and targeting resources towards more inclusive health, social and educational services.
  • Supporting the collection of disaggregate data by disability for emergency response and/or monitoring to help with tailored interventions, leading to improved support for children with disabilities in their learning environment.