Students with disabilities were among those most severely affected by COVID-19’s disruption of schools and communities.
When districts swiftly shuttered school buildings in the early days of the pandemic, they also struggled to provide accommodations and therapies remotely, causing some children to fall behind for lack of needed supports.
Parents also complained about lengthy lag time in reviewing and updating their children’s individualized education programs, or IEPs, to reflect the new reality.
And the same circumstances that made in-person learning so crucial for many students with disabilities also made it more dangerous for those at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19. That left many families weighing seemingly competing choices between preserving their children’s health or their educational progress.
It will take some time to fully measure the pandemic’s effects on education, particularly for students in vulnerable groups, experts say. But, even early in recovery efforts, some data points reveal an initial look at the extent of the challenges.
1. Students with disabilities saw sharper declines in test scores than their peers during the pandemic
Long-term trend data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that 9-year-old students scored, on average, 5 points lower in reading and 7 points lower in math in 2022 than did their pre-pandemic peers in 2020. The declines represent the largest drops in decades. The drop in scores was even greater for students with disabilities.
2. More states saw declining graduation rates for students with disabilities during COVID-19
An EdWeek Research Center analysis of state data found 31 states saw drops in overall graduation rates for the class of 2021, compared with 14 states for the class of 2020. Twenty-two states saw declining graduation rates among students with disabilities in 2020-21, compared with 10 states the previous year. Data were not available for all states in all years.
Pandemic learning experiences
1. Schools struggled to meet IDEA requirements during remote learning
The rapid, and sometimes rocky, transition to remote learning made it difficult to meet the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the nation’s primary special education law, school districts reported in a national survey conducted by the American Institutes for Research between May and September 2020. The graph below shows the percentage of respondents who said it was “more difficult” or “substantially more difficult” to meet a given requirement during the pandemic.
2. Schools reported challenges delivering supports for students with disabilities
Respondents to the AIR survey also faced challenges ensuring students got needed supports, like speech therapy. The graph below shows the percentage of respondents who said it was “more difficult” or “substantially more difficult” to deliver given supports during the early months of the pandemic.
3. Schools with fewer white students were less likely to provide in-person instruction for students with disabilities
Schools that had the smallest proportion of white students in their enrollments were more likely to be fully remote and less likely to offer alternative arrangements for students with disabilities, such as days of in-person instruction in small groups, surveys show. This graph shows responses to the RAND American Teacher Panel, which was fielded from mid-September to mid-October 2020.
4. Parents of students with learning disabilities were more concerned about their children’s learning during the pandemic
Parents of students with learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, were more likely to be concerned about changes in their children’s learning as a result of COVID-19 than parents of “typical children,” according to a 2021 survey by Understood, an organization that provides resources on learning differences to individuals, families, and educators.
1. A majority of parents say supporting students with disabilities should be a priority for schools’ use of COVID-19 relief aid
Asked about a variety of potential uses for federal COVID-19 relief aid provided through the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan, 75 percent of parents said support for students with disabilitiesshould be a “top priority” or “very important,” according to a March 2022 survey by the National Parents Union.
2. Schools struggle to hire special education teachers
Sixty-five percent of principals responding to an August survey by the National Center for Education Statistics said their school did not have enough special education teachers. The graph below shows the five most common shortages among teaching positions.
3. Schools lack professionals to manage special education evaluations and services
Forty-nine percent of principals responding to an August survey by the National Center for Education Statistics said their school did not have enough mental health professionals, a category that includes such professionals as psychologists who help oversee evaluations and behavior interventions for students with disabilities. Forty-three percent of principals reported a shortage of academic interventionists, who may provide services for some students with disabilities to help them meet learning goals. The graph below shows the five most common reported shortages among nonteaching positions.
Coverage of students with learning differences and issues of race, opportunity, and equity 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.
A version of this article appeared in the October 26, 2022 edition of Education Week as Special Education During the Pandemic