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.
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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.

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