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Special Education

Bridging Distance for Learners With Special Needs

By Corey Mitchell — September 16, 2020 9 min read
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As summer transitions to fall, millions of students began the new school year the same way they ended the last: physically separated from the teachers and staff who are crucial to their academic success.

For English-language learners and students with physical or learning disabilities, the indefinite shift to distance learning poses even more challenges.

Under federal law, these students are eligible for special education services designed to help them succeed in school. But those services are not always easily transferable to distance learning, or even in-person learning with social distancing.

Some special education students have gone months without occupational, physical, and speech therapy services and other supports. In districts that provided virtual therapy, parents were pressed into duty, forced to try to replicate the therapy that trained specialists would normally provide in school.


District and school leaders are confronting difficult, high-stakes decisions as they plan for how to reopen schools amid a global pandemic. Through eight installments, Education Week journalists explore the big challenges education leaders must address, including running a socially distanced school, rethinking how to get students to and from school, and making up for learning losses. We present a broad spectrum of options endorsed by public health officials, explain strategies that some districts will adopt, and provide estimated costs.

Part 1: The Socially Distanced School Day
Part 2: Scheduling the School Year
Part 3: Tackling the Transportation Problem
Part 4: How to Make Remote Learning Work
Part 5: Teaching and Learning
Part 6: Overcoming Learning Loss
Part 7: Teaching Social-Emotional Skills
Part 8: Closing Equity Gaps
Full Report: How We Go Back to School

Many English-learners don’t have dependable internet and technology at home, surveys show. Their teachers face a digital divide of their own: English-learner specialists undergo fewer hours of professional development with digital learning resources than traditional classroom teachers.

Schools must also acknowledge that some students will need both English-learner and special education support services.

After the rocky rollout in the spring, states such as California and Oregon urged schools to prioritize in-person learning for children with disabilities and those learning English when classes resume. If that return is weeks or months away, here are some steps, developed by English-learner and special education advocacy groups, and state departments of education, school districts can take now to connect with their students doing distance learning:

1. Listen to families

During the school shutdowns, parents were likely to become even more attuned to the needs of their children. As schools work to determine what students need, they should continue to gather feedback from parents.

Children whose parents are involved in supporting their learning do better in school. That support becomes even more important when the schooling is happening away from school.

Do not wait for families to ask for help. Reach out to them. Some families will simply not feel comfortable advocating for their children or pushing back against requirements that will not work for them.

For English-learner families, that often means finding a way to overcome language barriers. Roughly 75 percent of the nation’s roughly 5 million English-learners are native Spanish speakers. That means that more than a million are not.

Find out what those home languages are and connect families with staff or volunteers from community agencies who can help you communicate. That communication is key to student success and access. Some schools are relying on multilingual staff to connect with English-learner and immigrant families.

During the pandemic, Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs, the carefully constructed legal documents that determine what services students with disabilities are entitled to receive, became imprecise guides.

Some families reported severe learning loss and skill regression while schools were closed during spring and summer. Document the observations and concerns of parents and other caregivers. Let those observations guide revisions to their IEPs—and your instruction plans, if possible.

With classes resuming, some special education administrators are fearful that a deluge of lawsuits from frustrated parents and disability rights advocates will overwhelm schools. That could well happen, but experts recommend focusing on what you can do for families, not what you cannot.

Parents will certainly expect more this fall. Make sure you can explain what your district has done to shore things up. Experts recommend being upfront and direct about what parts of an IEP or 504 plan cannot be met during distance learning. That could pave the way for an extension of what some educators called a “grace period”—the implicit understanding that, with their buildings shut down to slow the spread of coronavirus, schools were doing their best to serve students under trying circumstances.

2. Make online learning accessible

Logging onto school-issued devices and district learning platforms was a nightmare for some native English-speaking families in the spring. Imagine how difficult that is for families trying to access tech support in their second or third language.

A nationally representative survey from the polling firm Latino Decisions conducted on behalf of Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors, a parent-led educational organization, found that 82 percent of Spanish-speaking parents want more technical support with learning websites and apps and 83 percent needed more help navigating distance learning platforms. The Clark County, Nev., schools hosted virtual workshops for parents to help guide them through tutorials on how to use Canvas and Infinite Campus.

But families also may not even have internet access or adequate digital devices to begin with. Another Latino Decisions survey, this one conducted on behalf of Somos, a New York City-based health delivery network, in April, revealed that close to 40 percent of Latino families did not have access to broadband and one-third of Latino families did not have enough computers for their children to use at home during the nationwide school shutdown.

The concerns do not end there, though. A 2019 report from the U.S. Department of Education found that teachers of students learning English were more likely to use general digital education resources, rather than those specifically designed for English-learners.

To overcome those issues and support English-learners during distance learning, WestEd recommends that teachers prioritize live instruction and extra office hours to model language use. In the South Bay Union, Calif., schools, where roughly half of the 7,000 students are English-learners, the district will offer virtual breakout groups for personal instruction for smaller groups of students to encourage more discussion and engagement.

The federal Education Department also devoted pre-COVID 19 research funding to deepen understanding of how students with disabilities learn online.

A 2016 report from the Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities determined that most online learning platforms were “poorly aligned” with the needs of students with disabilities, offered little support beyond rote drills and practice exercises, and often failed to accommodate the needs of students who may struggle to focus or multi-task.

With the new school year underway in many schools, students with disabilities will need more and better instruction than they have received in the past—and the challenges and solutions will be different for each student.

In the spring, disability rights and educational advocacy groups launched EducatingAllLearners.org, a resource hub designed to provide insights and tips on improving remote learning for students with disabilities.The National Center for Learning Disabilities and Understood.org, which has published guides about the types of support that students with disabilities may need as school resumes. The organizations belong to the COVID-19 Education Coalition Centering Equity, which produced an equity guide for students with disabilities, English-learners, and other students whose needs may be overlooked or misunderstood as school resumes.

Downloadable Guide: Key Back-to-School Questions for ELLs and Students With Disabilities

Understood.org has also written extensively about the supports that students with disabilities may need as the school year gets underway.

Part of the challenge lies in ensuring that students have access to appropriate accommodations and assistive technologies, such as text-to-speech software to help students with cognitive- or speech-related disabilities communicate with their teachers or devices that help magnify screen text for students who have impaired vision.

Students with IEPs or 504 plans may need accommodations such as web captions to follow live instruction or tools that allow them to access transcripts or recordings so they can listen and re-listen to teachers as they talk through assignments and lessons.

While many districts are trying to soften the blow of budget cuts on education for students with disabilities, finding money to pay for the accommodations and assistive technologies could prove challenging. In Georgia, the state department of education used $6 million in funds from the federal coronavirus relief package to help districts cover the costs.

3. Focus on co-teaching

The ever-evolving nature of education for students with disabilities and English-learners means that teachers need to collaborate to best serve their students because students do not learn in bubbles.

More than three-fourths of students with disabilities spent most of their day in traditional classrooms with peers who are not eligible for extra supports. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act mandates that children who receive special education services should, whenever possible, be taught alongside students who are not eligible for special education services.

Students in high schools—especially immigrant students—who are still learning English are often enrolled in separate programs. But programs that segregate English-learners in English-only classrooms have fallen out of favor and practice nationally as research has indicated that other instructional models are more effective.

That means that general classroom teachers must communicate with special education and English-as-a-second-language specialists to review and determine what supports students need, and how and when they receive those extra supports. Without the collaboration and extra aid, the struggles that students and teachers slogged through in the spring could re-emerge this fall.

Schools must also acknowledge that some students will need both English-learner and special education support services. English-learner and special education specialists should also communicate with each other to distinguish between English-learners who struggle with the language and those who have learning disabilities.

When students are not in class full-time, it would behoove schools to think of parents as co-educators, too. Until students return to in-person instruction, they are your eyes and ears.

Children whose parents are involved in supporting their learning do better in schools. Research has borne that out time and again. But parental involvement has taken on a new meaning amid the pandemic.

When possible, provide parents with the tools they need to succeed—resources that can help them guide students through virtual therapy, modified math lessons or reading instruction for children with dyslexia.

When school resumes, schools will face a high-stakes test of their ability to serve some of the nation’s most vulnerable students. And, without access to technology, the proper support services, and cooperation between educators and families, the students most in need of in-person schooling face an uncertain future.

Titilayo Tinubu Ali, director of research and policy, Southern Education Foundation; Lydia Breiseth, director, Colorín Colorado; Luvelle Brown, superintendent, Ithaca, N.Y., schools; Betty Chang, director, Education Resource Strategies; Patricia Chavez, director of policy, Parent Institute for Quality Education; Jenna Chiasson, assistant superintendent, Louisiana Department of Education; Lora Daily, director of learning supports, Iowa City, Iowa, schools; Angela Davis, parent, Miamisburg, Ohio; Miriam Ehtesham-Cating, director of programs for English-learners, Burlington, Vt., schools; Emily Elliott, instructional liaison, Albemarle County, Va., schools; Laila Ferris, interim chief of languages and dual language, El Paso, Texas., schools; Yvette Goorevitch, chief of specialized learning and student services, Norwalk, Conn., schools; Kenya Haynes, program specialist, National Center for Homeless Education; Greta Hinderliter, homeless liaison, Natrona County School District, Casper, Wyo.; Shenetria Jackson, parent, Houston; Vanessa Jimenez, president, Phoenix Union Classified Employee Association; Lindsay Jones, chief executive officer, National Center for Learning Disabilities; Christy McCoy, president-elect, School Social Work Association; Karen Hawley Miles, chief executive officer and president, Education Resource Strategies; Ron Nielson, Superintendent, San Juan School District, Blanding, Utah; Kevin Nohelty, superintendent, Dolton West School District 148, Dolton, Ill.; Tia C. Madkins, assistant professor, University of Texas at Austin; Adrián A. Pedroza, national director of strategic partnerships, Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors; Kristina Robertson, English language supervisor, Roseville, Minn., schools; Keri Rodrigues, founding president, National Parents Union; Suzy Pepper Rollins, author and consultant; Zakiya Sankara-Jabar, national director of activism, Brightbeam; Shalinee Sharma, co-founder and chief executive officer, Zearn; Sean Smith, professor of special education, University of Kansas; Tonya Spicer, director of special education, Owsley County, Ky., schools; Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, strategic advisor, Californians Together; Victor Tam, principal, Edwin and Anita Lee Newcomer School, San Francisco Unified, Calif., schools; Zoila Carolina Toma, parent, Signal Hill., Calif.; Cameron Walker; parent, Dayton, Ohio; Kate Eberle Walker, chief executive officer, PresenceLearning; Alexis Patterson Williams, assistant professor, University of California, Davis; Kerry Wrenick, state coordinator for education of homeless children and youth, Colorado Department of Education.

Studies and Documents:
“Reimagining Remote Learning,” by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (2020); “We Choose To Reimagine Education: Centering On Love And Emotionally Responsive Teaching And Learning,” by Tia C. Madkins and Alexis Patterson Williams (2020); “Centering Children and Families at the Margins,” by Zakiya Sankara-Jabar (2020); “Reopening Resilient Schools,” by John Bailey (2020); “COVID Comeback Models,” By Education Resource Strategies (2020); “Distance Learning Equity Dashboard,” by Titilayo Tinubu Ali, Sujith Cherukumilli and Mirel Herrera (2020); “NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Position on School Reopening During COVID-19 Pandemic,” by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (2020); “For Students of Color, Remote Learning Environments Pose Multiple Challenges,” by Natalie Spievack and Megan Gallagher (2020); “COVID-19 Hospitalization and Death by Race/Ethnicity,” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2020); “Family-School Engagement of Families Who Are Speakers of Other Languages,” by the U.S. Department of Education Office of English Language Acquisition, 2019; “How Educators Can Support English-Learner Students in Distance Learning,” by WestEd (2020); “Latino Parent Voices: What Our Families Need Now,” by Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors (2020); “Online Learning for Students with Disabilities: Considerations for LEA Policies, Practices, and Procedures,” Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities (2017); “Questions for Proactive and Equitable Educational Implementation During the COVID-19 Crisis,” by COVID-19 Education Coalition Centering Equity (2020); “Special Education and Distance Learning: Supporting Students Through the Pandemic,” by ExcelinEd (2020); “Supporting English-Learners in the COVID-19 Crisis,” by the Council of the Great City Schools (2020); “Supporting English Learners Through Technology: What Districts and Teachers Say About Digital Learning Resources for English-Learners,” by the U.S. Department of Education (2019); “Planning for Equity and Inclusion: A Guide to Reopening Schools,” by the National Center for Learning Disabilities (2020); “Roles and Responsibilities of Parents of Online School Students with Disabilities,” Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities (2017); “Understanding Teletherapy as an Option for K-12 Students with Disabilities,” by the Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities, (2018).
Coverage of students with diverse learning needs is supported in part by a grant from the Oak Foundation, at www.oakfnd.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.


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