Special Education

There’s Little Data on the Pandemic’s Effect on Students With Disabilities. That’s a Big Problem

By Lauraine Langreo — October 21, 2022 4 min read
Timothy Allison, a collaborative special education teacher in Birmingham, Ala., works with a student at Sun Valley Elementary School on Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022. The school district is struggling to fill around 50 teaching spots, including 15 in special education, despite $10,000 signing bonuses for special education teachers.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

More than two years since the pandemic disrupted student learning, the extent of the damage on the academic, social-emotional, and post-graduation outcomes of students with disabilities is still unclear, according to a report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education.

“Overall, there remains an urgent need for more research,” the report’s authors wrote.

Less than a third of most rigorous academic studies in the past year disaggregated outcomes for students with disabilities, according to the CRPE analysis. And when students with disabilities were included in the data, they were often treated as a monolith, which “likely masks critical variation in outcomes depending on students’ intensity of special education services, race, socioeconomic status, and English learner status,” according to the report.

Most of the data analyzed for the report were also limited to a specific state or locality and grade levels, so the findings are hard to generalize, according to the report.

CRPE, with the help of the nonprofit Center for Learner Equity, reviewed more than 100 research reports, peer-reviewed journal articles, news stories, and summaries of legal cases, along with available federal and state data, to understand how students with disabilities have been impacted by the pandemic.

As K-12 schools shift to recovery mode, experts emphasize, it’s critical to have data on how students with disabilities fared during the pandemic.

“If we don’t have a baseline understanding, we won’t be able to understand recovery efforts, and we won’t be able to understand what is effective in supporting students’ recovery, and we won’t also know where to target the most support,” said Laura Stelitano, a research manager for the Center for Learner Equity and lead author of the report, in an interview with Education Week.

“We need nuanced data that tells us who’s been impacted the most and in what ways so that we can be accountable for getting the right type of support to the right students,” she added.

Robin Lake, the director of CRPE, agreed: “The data are telling us so little. How can we take lessons from this if we can barely understand how students are faring?”

See also

Job coach Kristin Snell, right, walks with Rebecca Newlon as she pushes a cart to collect papers to shred at Valley View Elementary.
Job coach Kristin Snell, right, walks with Rebecca Newlon, 19, as she pushes a cart at Valley View Elementary School in McHenry, Ill. Newlon, who has Down syndrome, has a job-skills internship at her former elementary school.
Taylor Glascock for Education Week

The report also examined students with disabilities’ experiences during the pandemic. Here are some of the report’s findings:

  • Families of students with medical conditions or more significant support needs grappled with tradeoffs between the benefits of in-person learning and their children’s health.
  • More students who need special education services may not be getting identified, especially those younger than 2.
  • Families are still waiting for compensatory services to make up for what students lost earlier in the pandemic, and many are not aware that they qualify.
  • The pandemic disrupted students’ transition services and progress toward traditional graduation requirements, and the implications are unknown.
  • Reliance on underqualified teachers—particularly for special education positions—may be increasing from pre-pandemic levels.
  • Early analyses of how states and districts spent their Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding raises concerns for how well-positioned schools will be to make long-term and systemic improvements to benefit students with disabilities.

What can school districts do immediately?

The first thing to do, Lake said, is to use the federal COVID relief money to address unfinished learning and other student needs.

“It’s really important to zero in on the kids who most need intervention and support right now and think of creative ways to make sure they get it,” she said.

Schools also need to make sure that students with disabilities who qualify are receiving compensatory services, Stelitano said. Federal law requires schools to provide those services to make up for interruptions that caused them to fall behind on expected progress.

But with teacher shortages, it’ll be important for schools to provide the remaining teachers with sufficient support, which includes “making sure they have sufficient planning time, making sure they have sufficient time to do progress monitoring and the paperwork required for their roles, and [time for] the collaboration that they need with other teachers,” Stelitano said.

What else is needed?

To really understand how to help students with disabilities recover from the disrupted learning, there needs to be more complete data, disaggregated based on multiple student identities, Stelitano said.

The report also suggested investing in the capacity of local school districts and their individualized education program (IEP) teams so that they are “equipped to elevate the voices of families and students when making decisions.”

And lastly, schools should share what strategies are working for their students with disabilities so that policymakers and school leaders have models to learn from, the report said.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Personalized Learning Webinar
No Time to Waste: Individualized Instruction Will Drive Change
Targeted support and intervention can boost student achievement. Join us to explore tutoring’s role in accelerating the turnaround. 
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools
Student Well-Being K-12 Essentials Forum Social-Emotional Learning: Making It Meaningful
Join us for this event with educators and experts on the damage the pandemic did to academic and social and emotional well-being.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Privacy & Security Webinar
K-12 Cybersecurity in the Real World: Lessons Learned & How to Protect Your School
Gain an expert understanding of how school districts can improve their cyber resilience and get ahead of cybersecurity challenges and threats.
Content provided by Microsoft

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Special Education Letter to the Editor We Must Recognize the Significance of Occupational Therapy in Schools
An occupational therapist urges states to make transition services a priority when addressing the crisis faced by students impacted by COVID.
1 min read
Education Week opinion letters submissions
Gwen Keraval for Education Week
Special Education Unified Sports Level the Playing Field for Students With Disabilities
Interest is growing in unified sports, where students with and without intellectual disabilities can play and compete together.
7 min read
Saratoga Springs High School Physical Education teacher, Colleen Belanger, left, instructs Hunter Fiorillo, during a Unified Physical Education class at Saratoga Springs High School in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022. "I've been teaching for a long time and this is one of the best things I've ever done," said Belanger of teaching Unified P.E.
Saratoga Springs High School physical education teacher Colleen Belanger, left, instructs Hunter Fiorillo, during a unified physical education class at Saratoga Springs High School in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022. "I've been teaching for a long time and this is one of the best things I've ever done," said Belanger of the unified class.
Heather Ainsworth for Education Week
Special Education Students With Disabilities Urge Smoother Transition to College
Legislation would simplify the process for students with disabilities to continue getting accommodations when they head to college.
4 min read
College students blurred and moving around a white male sitting at desk in a college classroom
Chris Ryan/Getty
Special Education States Are Desperate for Special Ed. Teachers. But They Can't Cut Corners to Get Them
The Education Department warns states not to lower standards, even as districts frantically search for skilled special educators.
8 min read
Special education teacher assisting a diverse group of elementary students in art class.
E+/Getty