Schools Struggle to Educate Students With Disabilities Amid Pandemic
April 20, 2020Lauren Camera
Advocates worry that the 7 million students with disabilities will be left behind in distance learning.
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.