After last year’s learning loss, we need a plan for students with disabilities

The COVID-19 pandemic created a crisis in education for all students, especially the 7.3 million students with disabilities. School systems across the nation experienced closures, and many of them opted for virtual learning. All students were hit hard by the disruption to teaching and learning, and students with disabilities were particularly affected.

Many students with disabilities who typically receive additional academic supports and services in-person as outlined in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) were unable to receive them due to the changes in how schools operated. While some students were able to access these services via remote learning, other services (e.g., physical therapy, occupational therapy, etc.) that require hands-on support from specialized staff were difficult for schools to provide. Philanthropic entities like the Oak Foundation and its grantees supported efforts to help students with disabilities transition to remote learning during the pandemic.

Teachers of students with disabilities also faced significant challenges as a result of school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic. During this time, teachers often lacked the support and resources to meet the needs of their students with disabilities. They often had to pivot to remote service delivery. Both general and special education teachers who work with students with disabilities felt they were less able to meet the requirements of students’ individualized education plans (IEP) and provide the necessary supports when teaching remotely.

New research examining the academic growth of students with disabilities finds that they are at substantially higher risk of losing ground during a typical summer break. The pandemic has likely had an even greater impact than a typical summer break. In some states, summative assessment data show what parents and teachers have been suggesting, that students with disabilities did not fare well academically during the pandemic.

In July, the U.S. Department of Education released more than $3 billion in American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds to states to aid more than 7.9 million infants, toddlers and students served under IDEA. These federal funds helped states and schools provide interventions and services to children with disabilities, especially those who faced challenges in receiving services outlined in their IEP or 504 plans.

It will be important to leverage this funding to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on lost instructional time, service interruption, and student wellbeing. However, funding is not enough. We need supportive, equitable policies to improve education for students with disabilities as the school year progresses.

The National Center for Learning Disabilities has four key recommendations to address the specific learning loss students with disabilities may face throughout this school year and in the future.

  • Utilize high-quality, accessible, and inclusive instruction: Districts should consider offering extended learning time or implementing a universal design for learning that supports the needs of students with disabilities, as well as typically developing students.
  • Implement inclusive and culturally responsive social-emotional learning: Teachers need access to high-quality professional development to meet both the academic and wellness needs of students with disabilities. Partnerships with community mental health organizations can provide supplemental supports.
  • Develop effective progressive monitoring and accurate evaluations for specialized instruction: Districts should work to build capacity and partnerships to increase evaluation capacity and build expertise at the intersection of disability and other complex factors.
  • Foster meaningful family support and engagement: Districts and educators should work with families and caregivers to develop inclusive communication and digital literacy training for students with disabilities to adapt to this increasingly digital world.

IDEA regards academic goals for students with disabilities as the means for achieving other outcomes such as equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency. Often, however, these outcomes remain unmet as students with disabilities have been systemically underserved in this country and equity gaps in inclusion, achievement, and graduation rates have persisted for years.

In our ongoing efforts to promote education equity through innovative partnerships at The Hunt Institute, results from our COVID Constituency project show that parents and voters desire profound education changes that allow all students to succeed. The collective trauma of the pandemic, the breakdown of the education system, and the racial reckoning of 2020 have reemphasized the glaring, disparate outcomes various groups of Americans experience daily. However, despite our perceived differences, our ongoing research shows that Americans are seeking a more equitable, inclusive, and personalized education system for all.

As the school year progresses in 2022 and our education environment continues to move toward a new normal, this is our opportunity to reimagine education for students, especially those with disabilities. It is up to us — education leaders and policymakers — to enact the changes necessary to help students with disabilities thrive in the schools and communities where they live