Aug 15, 2020 - Health

Remote school's strain on students with special needs

Illustration of children facing away with backpacks holding hands with a grid background and circles
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The pandemic's disruption of in-person instruction is especially difficult for the seven million U.S. students with disabilities and other special needs and their families.

The big picture: The sudden and sustained switch to online learning is straining already under-resourced special education providers — and could lead to even steeper learning loss among a vulnerable student population, experts say.

  • Children with special needs "are hit hardest with gaps in their schooling," said Bob Cunningham, executive director of learning development at Understood, an organization that supports parents and students with disabilities.
  • "There is no practical reason to believe that the slide won't be greater for kids with disabilities."

Background: Schools are federally required to serve students' needs by developing Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs, to guide specialized services they receive in school.

  • When schools went virtual in the spring, teachers and parents had almost no time to reconfigure these plans for remote learning.

Over the summer, some schools found ways to move IEPs online, but there are a slew of problems. "Delivering special education online is not easy," says Emily Smith, founder of Teleteachers, which provides online tutoring to students with disabilities. "We're seeing a big learning curve."

Hands-on learning is difficult over a laptop screen. Many teachers use tactile stimulation to help students learn, which relies on the sense of touch.

  • For example, in Northern Virginia, "8-year-old Theo Duran, who is autistic, struggles more to walk up the stairs or hold a crayon to write — all tasks he was making progress on before the coronavirus pandemic hit and shut down his school," Perry Stein and Valerie Strauss write for the Washington Post.

Students rely on in-person learning so they can pick up on social cues and further develop socially and behaviorally.

  • And the parents of students who receive multiple services — such as occupational therapy, speech therapy or counseling — have to keep up with a packed schedule of online sessions on top of virtual class time.

Special educators often have behavioral aides or other support staff in the classroom.

  • "In our new environment, there is no support staff," Smith says. "That falls on the parents who are likely working and likely have no idea how to help their child participate in a session."

The other side: Some students could potentially benefit from online school since they will be learning in the familiar environment of home.

  • Once teachers and parents figure it out, the integration of new technology could make special education more tailored for the individual student, Cunningham says.

Go deeper... Podcast: Special ed under pressure

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