National Special Education Day: Equity in Remote Learning for Diverse Learners

Today is National Special Education Day. This day is significant to me because I was a special education teacher (on both sides of the Atlantic). My first teaching job was in a school for students with significant and complex needs in Stockport, England. I next moved to North Carolina, where I taught students with a range of special educational needs in both inclusion and resource classrooms. Being a special education teacher is undoubtedly the most rewarding job that I have ever had––I really enjoyed my decade working with kids, having fun with learning, and observing their progress. Although I ultimately left the classroom to work as a school administrator (and later as an education researcher), I have remained very interested in issues related to special education. 

When schools began closing last March, the research team at The Learning Partnership made the decision to examine and compare state responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Our major focus for this project was how state guidance attended to equity in remote learning (see the full report for details). Given my teaching background, one of the areas that I was especially drawn to was how state education agencies (SEAs) addressed meeting the needs of students with disabilities. 

Sixty-seven percent of the state guidance documents we analyzed included statements about students with disabilities. Some of the recommendations made in the documents stood out as being especially important; I have listed these below:

  • During school closures, districts and schools must ensure that each student with a disability is provided with the special education and related services identified in their individualized education plan (IEP).
  • All students with disabilities must be provided with the necessary accommodations and supports, as outlined in their IEP or 504 plan, to be able to access and complete remote assignments.
  • Districts and schools should establish systems so that special education coordinators can continue to manage their caseloads and hold IEP eligibility, annual review, and reevaluation meetings. 
  • Parents and guardians should be communicated with regarding their children’s IEP services before, during, and after school closures.
  • Feedback should be gathered regularly from families on students with disabilities’ remote learning experiences and progress. 
  • Technology that is distributed during an extended school closure (e.g., laptops and tablets) must be configured to be accessible by students with disabilities. 
  • Students with disabilities and their families should be given training on the use of distance technologies (e.g., Zoom) and assistive devices at home. 
  • Schools must review how closures have impacted students’ special educations and related services in order to plan for addressing students’ needs as they return to school.

There are many reasons why emphasizing equity in remote learning for students with disabilities is imperative. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, approximately 14 percent of public school students in the U.S. receive special education services. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which turned 45 in November, all students with disabilities are entitled to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment. This means that all eligible students should be provided with a special education and related services that meet their individual needs, at public expense. Moreover, students with disabilities should be taught alongside students who do not receive a special education, to the maximum extent appropriate. School districts’ obligation to provide all students with a FAPE has remained unaltered during the time of COVID-19. 

The pandemic has created challenges for all students, but students with disabilities are especially vulnerable during a sustained period of remote learning. As described in a policy brief by the United Nations (2020), “Even under normal circumstances, persons with disabilities are less likely to access health care, education…and to participate in the community. They are more likely to live in poverty, experience higher rates of violence, neglect and abuse, and are among the most marginalized in any crisis-affected community” (p. 2). As a former teacher, I know the critical role that schools play in providing not only educational opportunities but also behavioral, emotional, and health supports. Many students with disabilities struggle with changes to their routines, and a lack of structure and predictability can create significant stress and anxiety for them. Furthermore, many students with special needs heavily depend on the individualized attention and support provided by their teachers, paraprofessionals, and therapists. When districts rapidly closed their doors to in-person instruction earlier this year, many parents found themselves suddenly charged with taking on the task of providing some of the services typically provided by specialist teachers as well as occupational, physical, and speech therapists (Hill, 2020). Faced with these types of issues and hurdles, educators and educational leaders have had to figure out how to achieve FAPE within a remote learning context.

On this National Special Education Day, I feel optimistic that the guidance provided by SEAs and special education advocates will have helped mitigate some of the challenges associated with the pandemic. Future research should explore the impact of school closures on vulnerable groups of students and identify innovative strategies for improved educational experiences and outcomes during the pandemic and beyond.