While the pandemic made it harder for teachers everywhere to do their jobs, special education teachers in particular experienced a lack of training, support, and collaboration with their general education counterparts.
That’s according to a new study released by the Center for Reinventing Public Education. This spring and summer, researchers interviewed more than 60 special education directors and teachers, school leaders, and general education teachers working at 15 schools across the country to ask them about their experiences with special education during the pandemic. Most of the special education teachers did not have their own classrooms, but provided special education to students in general education classrooms, according to Lane McKittrick, a research analyst for CRPE.
Earlier this year, in a separate study, CRPE found that the pandemic had impacted students with disabilities disproportionately, with districts struggling to meet the needs of students with complex learning disabilities, which require more support. Prolonged school closures kept students away from physical or cognitive therapy and hands-on instruction, while online learning platforms proved insufficient to ensure accessibility for students with a range of disabilities. That led to students with disabilities facing steeper learning losses and reporting higher absenteeism, that study found.
Schools with majority students of color and schools with high poverty levels reported that the pandemic had a disproportionately higher impact on services offered to students with disabilities, according to a nationally representative survey of 1,500 teachers conducted by the RAND Corporation last October. Nearly 2 in 5 teachers said that their schools offered alternative instructional arrangements for students with disabilities during the pandemic, but this was less common in majority non-white and high-poverty schools.
“For me as a special education parent, I know sometimes special education feels like an afterthought, and as a researcher too, it kind of feels like that as well,” McKittrick said. “There’s a lot of kids that were left behind last year because we just weren’t able to serve them.”
Here are some of the difficulties special education teachers in particular have faced over the last 18 months.
1. Special education teachers didn’t collaborate with general education teachers
Collaboration between general and special education teachers was a challenge before the pandemic. That collaboration would have helped teachers gain important information about students and strategies on how to best meet their needs during the pandemic when special education students were struggling.
More than 45 percent of high school teachers and between 30 and 35 percent of middle and elementary school teachers said they had never collaborated on lesson planning.
That might have been because only about a third of general classroom teachers said they see themselves as primarily responsible for accommodating their special education students’ needs, despite the fact that these students are typically educated alongside their peers who aren’t receiving services.
Even before the pandemic, 1 in 5 teachers felt “very well prepared” to teach students with mild-to-moderate learning disabilities according to a May 2019 survey of 1,350 teachers by the National Center for Learning Disabilities and Understood.org.
“It was only one or two schools that had indicated to us that they felt like collaboration was going really well,” McKittrick said. “The rest of the schools were still really struggling with how to make time for all of that, given all the different priorities that were going on.”
2. The responsibility of communication with parents was primarily on special education teachers
While schools were closed or in hybrid mode last year, communication with parents of students on individualized education plans was vital so that parents could keep track of their child’s academic progress. But although students typically spend most of their day with general education teachers, special education teachers felt primarily responsible for leading the communication with families regularly, the study found.
About 60 percent of high school and middle school special education teachers and 40 percent of elementary school teachers said they mostly stayed in touch with families.
According to the CRPE study, when general and special education teachers “share responsibility for educating students with disabilities—planning lessons together, co-designing modifications and accommodations, and jointly communicating with families—teachers feel more supported and their students experience more inclusive and productive learning environments.”
3. Districts often did not factor in students with disabilities for reopening plans
In a separate study, CRPE found that 12 percent of school reopening plans it surveyed did not even mention students with disabilities at all. Even the plans that mentioned them did not elaborate on reopening plans specifically for these students. And while 52 percent of plans called for in-person learning for students with disabilities, only 33 percent included interventions or increased support for students with disabilities to address pandemic-related “learning loss,” according to the report.
Given this lack of guidance, teachers attempted to adapt their instructional approach to meet the diverse educational needs of students with a wide range of disabilities. But often they were left to figure out an approach on their own with minimal or no guidance, much less a shared understanding of the best ways to help special education students make up for lost time.
Special education needs to be a priority this school year
Collaboration between general and special education teachers and training for special education teachers were not prioritized before the pandemic either, according to the CRPE study. Although some districts implemented co-teaching over the last decade — that pairs a general and a special education teacher in the same classroom — many districts have still not encouraged collaboration on lesson plans.
But to recover from the academic and social losses students with disabilities faced over the past year and a half, schools need to change their approach to special education.
Some ways CRPE suggested in its study included administrators encouraging general and special education teachers to be jointly responsible for students with disabilities by explaining what shared responsibility looks like for lesson planning, classroom instruction, family communication, and supporting students outside the classroom.
School leaders should also help educators meet these new standards by scheduling dedicated time for collaboration and training for general educators about special education students’ needs and how to meet them, the CRPE study suggested.
Federal relief funding that can be applied to professional development should be allocated toward targeted training and support in this area.
“It would be really detrimental to students and our families to just go back to the way things were,” McKittrick said. “People just didn’t have enough time to be able to think about special education differently last year. I just hope this is a catalyst for change and not just going back to the status quo.”
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 September 29, 2021 edition of Education Week as 3 Reasons Why Being a Special Education Teacher Is Even Harder During the Pandemic