With COVID-19 cases spiking in states across the nation, the prospect of school in buildings is becoming unlikely for many more students.
Yet some schools are prioritizing students with special education needs, such as students with disabilities and English-language learners, ushering them to the front of the line for in-person learning.
In Albemarle County, Va., students with disabilities who have Individualized Education Programs, students with unreliable or no internet service, and novice English-learners in 4th through 12th grades can return to classrooms in early September—if their families prefer. All other students will start the school year with remote learning
“We wanted to invite back all our learners. We definitely believe that school is the best place for students,” said Emily Elliott, an instructional liaison for the Albemarle County schools’ English-to-speakers-of-other-languages program. “But we also know that with COVID, starting small at the beginning and going slow to go far is the safer choice.”
Most students slogged through a spring of difficult, jarring distance learning thrust upon them by schools’ efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. But there seems to be consensus that the stakes for a strong return to school and face-to-face instruction are especially high for certain groups of students.
In states from California to Connecticut, educators and advocates fear the outbreak-related school closures had severe consequences for the combined 12 million students who are English-learners or who have IEPs, the carefully constructed documents developed to guide the provision of instructional supports for children who are eligible for special education services. Some schools were unable to deliver services, such as speech, occupational, and physical therapy, that were guaranteed in IEPs. 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.
Most of the students in both categories learn in general education classrooms, but receive tailored, specialized support services that many went without during distance learning. Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued on Aug. 1 delves into the difficulty of providing virtual instruction for English-learners and children with disabilities, noting that “in-person instruction may be particularly beneficial for students with additional learning needs.”
And, if pre-pandemic research funded and produced by the U.S. Department of Education is any indication, they were probably not well served after schools shut down in the spring. Well before the coronavirus closed schools, studies determined that states struggled to develop remote learning policies for students with disabilities and that teachers were often not trained—and sometimes not willing—to use digital resources for English-learners, many of whom lack access to high-speed internet access and computers, laptops, or tablets.
But health concerns are also a consideration. While the most recent Centers for Disease Control guidance on a safe return to school acknowledges in-person instruction is critical for certain groups of students, it also concedes that children with intellectual and developmental disabilities are more likely to have chronic medical conditions that may put them at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19.
The report also indicates that Latino children, who comprise the bulk of the nation’s English-learners, are testing positive for COVID-19 at higher rates than other groups of children, perhaps because they have family members who are more likely to serve as essential workers.
In a national survey conducted in July, Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that focuses on Latino parent engagement, found that more than half of families may not send their children to school or child care this fall, even if buildings are open, because they have fears about contracting COVID-19.
Inviting back certain groups of students would make it easier for schools to maintain social distancing guidelines but risks remain. Schools in at least four states where students have returned to class have temporarily shut down classrooms or schools after COVID-19 tests for students or staff came back positive.
“Families are very much aware of the risk,” said Adrián Pedroza, national director of strategic partnerships for Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors. “We’re hearing from families that, ‘As difficult as it’s going to be for us to continue with distance learning from home, we’d rather keep them home than put them at risk.’ They would choose their kids and families staying free of the virus rather than sending them back into a dangerous environment.”
Who Gets Priority for In-Person Instruction?
Facing uncertainty about reopening, schools are also making decisions about who gets priority for in-person instruction under the specter of legal action. Parents and special education advocates in several states have filed lawsuits questioning whether schools have met the needs of students with disabilities during the pandemic. That list of lawsuits includes a potential class-action suit filed in New York City with possible plaintiffs in more than a dozen states.
In the Norwalk, Conn., schools, administrators developed a return-to-school plan that calls for five days a week of in-person learning for students with disabilities to ensure IEP compliance.
To foster relationships with families of students with disabilities, the district hosted weekly Facebook Live events to field questions and concerns. The district also surveyed parents in April, just weeks after schools shut down, to find out what was and was not working for students during distance learning, said Yvette Goorevitch, who oversees special education services in the district.
Frequent communication helps “move the discussion from angry advocacy that leads to increased lawsuits into a collaborative problem-solving approach,” Goorevitch said. “I often say to my parents, ‘Compliance is the beginning, the lowest level of what we are striving to do.’”
In the Kershaw County, S.C., schools, all families can choose from three school reopening scenarios: in-person instruction five days per week, and virtual options that allow students to either participate in live online sessions or recorded lessons they can complete at their own pace.
So far, Tarrence McGovern, the director for special education for the Kershaw schools, said families of special education students are comfortable with all three options. The district partners with Presence Learning, a company that works with districts to offer live speech therapy, occupational therapy, and behavioral and mental health services that are outlined in student IEPs.
Without the service and its virtual platform, “we would really struggle to even get the required services to our students,” McGovern said. “Without being able to use a robust live platform, we wouldn’t be able to deliver the quality of instruction the children deserve.”
Tackling Learning Loss
Remote learning has also posed a significant challenge for students who are not fluent in English and the teachers who educate them.
Arguing that English-learners “disproportionately suffered” from the shuttering of public schools, a coalition of California-based advocacy organizations issued a policy paper that urges districts in the state to prioritize in-person learning for the students when school buildings reopen. The Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors survey found that two-thirds of Latino families reported problems with distance learning because of difficulty understanding assignments and poor communication with teachers.
During the school closure in the spring, “there were no guidelines,” said Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, strategic advisor for Californians Together, a research and advocacy group for the state’s more than 1.5 million English-learners. “There were no standards for how much this instruction had to be live with the teacher.”
More than 40 percent of students in the state speak a language other than English at home. Yet, an Education Trust-West poll of families found that when schools shut down in the spring, 25 percent of those families received learning materials only in English
The policy paper also calls on districts using hybrid or full in-person learning models to ensure the students are included in classes with native English-speaking peers, but also receiving targeted supports to further develop their language skills in English—and their home language, if possible
Per guidance from the state education department, districts in California have until the end of September to outline how their schools will address learning loss for English-learner students and what additional supports schools will provide during remote learning for English-learners, and other groups of potentially vulnerable students, such as children with disabilities and youth who are homeless or living in foster care.
‘Adapt to Change and Stay Positive’
In Albemarle County, Va., the district decided to bring back older English-learners instead of prioritizing the needs of younger students learning the language. Administrators there want to focus at least the first nine weeks of in-person instruction on the grade levels where “content becomes most rigorous,” said Elliott, the instructional liaison.
Families have until mid-August to decide whether to choose in-person or remote learning options. After the first nine weeks, the district will re-evaluate its reopening plans and determine whether the co-teaching partnerships, between general education and English-learner and special education teachers, helped students make up ground they lost when schools closed.
Schools have spent months developing plans for reopening schools, but have come to grips with the reality that the fate of in-person instruction is beyond their control.
“A lot of this is just being OK with the unknown,” said McGovern, the special education administrator in Kershaw County, S.C. “You’ve just got to be able to adapt to change and stay positive in the face of some difficult times.”
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.
A version of this article appeared in the August 19, 2020 edition of Education Week as Students in Special Education, English-Learners May Go Back to Class First. Here’s Why