The blog of the Urban Institute
October 9, 2020

What Can Disability Services Teach Schools about Reopening?

October 8, 2020

With some students across the country returning to classrooms, others starting school through remote learning or hybrid plans, and child care providers reopening in growing numbers, the system of regular supports for young families is beginning to recover. Barriers to access remain and can pose striking challenges to parents of children with disabilities. But because disability services have been available in many communities throughout the summer, they offer lessons on how to adapt and engage families during the pandemic.

In early July, we observed that parents of children with disabilities were generally experiencing higher rates of stress, depression, and anxiety than other parents during the early weeks of the COVID-19 crisis. We also observed that early gaps in parental well-being had narrowed by mid-May. After another two months of data, it’s apparent that these gaps widened slightly in late May and have been stable since then, consistent with prepandemic evidence on greater hardship among families of children with disabilities. These trends suggest families are acclimating to the pandemic, often with support from disability services.

Disparities in parents' anxiety levels during COVID-19

Disparities in parents' depression during COVID-19

These findings come from a new survey from the University of Oregon’s Center on Translational Neuroscience. The Rapid Assessment of Pandemic Impact on Development (RAPID) - Early Childhood Survey is an early childhood family well-being survey designed to gather essential information regarding the needs, health promoting behaviors, and well-being of families with children ages 5 and younger during the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States.

In addition to demonstrating narrowing gaps in parents’ anxiety and depression, RAPID data show narrowing gaps in parents’ concern for their children’s well-being. In early July, we observed that 80 percent of parents of children with disabilities were somewhat or very much concerned with their children’s learning and development. About 50 percent of parents expressed concern in more recent surveys. A similar drop occurred in parental concerns about their children’s behavior, with 58 percent expressing some level of concern in recent surveys, compared with 78 percent in previous months. These numbers remain high, and gaps between families of young children with and without disabilities persist. Yet lessening parental concerns, anxiety, and depression bodes well for children, whose mental health is closely linked to that of their caregivers.

Disparities in parents' concerns over their children's learning and well-being during COVID-19

How disability services fared during the summer

Throughout the pandemic, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Part C and Part B, Section 619 have provided services for children with disabilities from birth to age 5. In 2017, nearly 1.2 million children received these services, with children ages 3 to 5 generally receiving services in early childhood education programs, and infants and toddlers typically receiving intervention services in their homes.

Early in the pandemic, in-person Part C and Part B, Section 619 services were suspended in many states in response to worsening health and safety conditions. School-based services could legally pause their efforts, along with the suspension of general educational programming. But within a few months, service providers were adapting to local conditions. By June, five states had returned to prepandemic referral rates for early intervention services under IDEA Part C. Referral rates declined 25 percent or more in 24 states and had dropped by smaller percentages in 21 other states.

Early intervention staff have also worked to smooth the pathway from referrals to diagnosis to service provision through a mix of in-person and virtual supports. Providers’ persistence and innovation have brought needed supports to some families, but concerns about service access and adequacy remain. In Washington, initial Individualized Family Service Plans for infants and toddlers are down 29 percent compared with the first half of 2019, with the greatest declines experienced by Black and American Indian or Alaska Native families. These numbers reflect long-standing racial disparities in access to early intervention services.

Bringing lessons from disability services to schools during reopening

Despite the pandemic, IDEA Part C and Part B, Section 619 offer some insights on the power of pivoting to support children and parents. IDEA efforts that schools and other services can adapt as reopening plans progress include the following:

To help more young children and families receive the supports they need to grow and learn during the pandemic, insights from disability services can help schools and other service providers understand their specific constraints, address barriers creatively, and build long-term resilience.


Philip Fisher, Philip H. Knight chair and professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, contributed to this post.

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