Special Education

Schools Struggled to Serve Students With Disabilities, English-Learners During Shutdowns

By Corey Mitchell — November 19, 2020 3 min read
Young boy wearing a mask shown sheltering at home looking out a window with a stuffed animal.
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Accessing education during the nation’s COVID-19-related school closures was often an uphill battle for the combined 12 million students who are English-language learners and students with disabilities and their families.

A new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office outlined the factors that complicated the delivery of special education services and shut off access to learning for English-learners. Under federal law, these students are eligible for tailored, specialized education services designed to help them succeed in school. But those services are not always easily transferable to distance learning.

For the study, the Government Accountability Office reviewed distance learning plans for 15 school districts, selected for their proportion of either English-learners or students with disabilities to measure how well schools adapted to serve students who were physically separated from the teachers and staff who are crucial to their academic success.

The shift to distance learning “laid bare both the logistical and instructional challenges of distance learning” for both sets of students, the report found.

The study found that educators struggled to meet the wide range of needs of students with disabilities served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which covers students who struggle academically, need emotional and behavioral supports, or are medically fragile and require full-time aides to access learning.

To adapt to the schooling limitations created by the pandemic, some schools adjusted students’ learning goals and service plans with mixed results, the study found.

For students with disabilities, schools were often unable to deliver services, such as speech, occupational, and physical therapy, that were guaranteed in students’ Individualized Education Programs.

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.

Schools did report increased parent and teacher collaboration, but the study authors concluded that “providing students with the services they need remains an ongoing challenge.”

English-learners, especially those from homes where English is not the primary language, lost access to teachers and classmates who helped foster understanding of the language.

Many English-learners also lacked access to dependable internet and technology at home, the report found. Their teachers faced a digital divide of their own: English-learner specialists undergo fewer hours of professional development with digital learning resources than traditional classroom teachers.

The study found that schools used strategies to build connections with families and adapted and translated learning materials in Spanish and other languages to compensate for the loss of in-person instruction. Despite the efforts, schools still struggled to address the needs of families who speak less commonly spoken home languages.

Faced with these challenges, several states urged schools to prioritize in-person learning for children with disabilities and those learning English when classes resume. But those plans are threatened as another surge in coronavirus cases has forced a growing number of school systems back into districtwide remote plans.

“This is a pivotal and perilous moment in our fight for equity in education,” Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott, the chairman of the U.S. House education committee, said in a statement. “The impact on students students will be felt long after the pandemic is over.”

The study was conducted as part of the Government Accountability Office’s COVID-19 monitoring and oversight responsibilities under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES Act, which provided billions of dollars in funding dedicated to K-12 schools.

A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.

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