The blog of the Urban Institute
August 5, 2020

Students with Disabilities Can’t Just Be an Afterthought This Fall

August 5, 2020

When schools closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Chris, an 8-year-old student with cerebral palsy, lost his school routine, including interactions with peers and physical and occupational therapy. He is one of nearly seven million students in the US with a disability, a population whose experiences and needs are missing from many conversations and plans around educating our nation’s children during and following the pandemic.

The federal government has issued limited guidance for remote learning and returning to school in the fall, so schools and educators are still exploring ways to meet the educational and related needs of all students, including the unique needs of students with disabilities. Educators weighing whether students can safely return to classrooms, learn remotely, or have a blend of the two through the 2020–21 school year can turn to the evidence base to understand how these choices and plans affect students with disabilities.

Here are a few strategies education stakeholders can consider to ensure they are centering the needs of students with disabilities in their academic plans.

State and local governments can offer support and funding to schools as they work to make distance learning accessible for every student. Schools and districts are being asked to do a lot right now with limited resources, and they need financial support to best meet their needs. Some of these recommendations will require additional funding or resources. State and local governments could consider working with schools and districts in their jurisdiction to fill these gaps and meet the educational needs of all students.

Recommendations for school and district administrators

  • Facilitate communication between families and education teams—and document it. Communication between families and their students’ education teams is critical (PDF) during the pandemic. School decisionmakers can encourage education teams and families to document this communication and other information about students’ attitudes toward learning and problem-solving strategies so they have a legal record of accommodations and guides to inform future services.
  • Make mainstream distance learning compatible with a range of disabilities and assistive-learning technologies. Lesson plans and distance-learning technologies are often incompatible with the needs of students with disabilities and assistive technologies. Many web browsers, computers, and tablets already include accessibility features such as text-to-speech software. Educators can incorporate these features, as well as other nontechnological learning supports, to ensure access for students with disabilities.
  • Lend equipment to students because some benefit from specialized equipment such as physical therapy tools and adaptive equipment for computers. If equipment isn’t available, consider reaching out to local businesses (particularly those that are closed and could potentially lend unused equipment).
  • Prioritize the highest-need students when kids go back to school. Students who struggle with distance learning may have regressed more than others and need extra supports while reintegrating to school. As school and district administrators plan reopening, they can also consider prioritizing the most marginalized students who are experiencing barriers to distance learning, such as limited access to internet, lack of a safe home environment, or in-person learning needs related to disabilities.
  • Plan for continued remote education because high-risk students may not be able to immediately return to an in-person education environment. Administrators could consider blended in-person and remote learning plans (PDF) to meet the needs of all students and be prepared for a resurgence of the coronavirus.
  • Engage students and families in the planning and decisionmaking process. “Nothing about us without us” is a slogan used in the disability community to assert that people with disabilities should be included in decisionmaking around policies that affect them. Students with disabilities, and their families, know best what challenges they face and which resources they need. Additionally, centering the voices of marginalized students, including students of color, low-income students, LGBTQIA+ students, and students with disabilities, when planning for education can create a better and more inclusive experience for all students.

Recommendations for teachers and other education team members

  • Adapt lesson plans to capitalize on the benefits of distance learning. Lack of flexibility in education can be detrimental to students with disabilities, but distance learning offers some benefits. Virtual field trips enrich students’ learning experiences, and helping with chores around the home can improve life skills, executive function, and social skills; teachers can consider offering credit for these types of activities.
  • Reconnect with students, support social and emotional needs, and reassess learning needs and goals when kids can return to school. The educational changes and traumas of the pandemic will affect students’ educational, social, and emotional needs and progress. Students will need additional social and emotional supports and time to readjust to school and reconnect with their education team and peers. Educators might consider assessing (PDF) students’ immediate needs inside and outside school and adjust their learning plans and goals once they’re settled in.

Parents and guardians, be kind to yourself during this time and set realistic expectations. Even without a pandemic, students with disabilities and their families can experience high stress levels.

Without uniform federal guidance for returning to school this fall, education stakeholders will need to consult the evidence to decide what is best for their students. The Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities, the Council of Administrators of Special Education, the Council for Exceptional Children, the Educating All Learners Alliance, the National Association of School Psychologists, and the National Disability Rights Network have evidence-based resources geared specifically toward students with disabilities that could make the difference for the millions of children who will be going back to school this fall, one way or another.

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.