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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

Go deeper

Operation Warp Speed leader: COVID vaccine push is "isolated from a political environment"

Moncef Slaoui in the Rose Garden on Nov. 13. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Moncef Slaoui, the White House's top scientific adviser to Operation Warp Speed, told Chuck Todd on "Meet the Press" on Sunday that the Trump administration's efforts to accelerate the development of a coronavirus vaccine is "isolated from a political environment" and that a change in administration "doesn't, frankly, make a difference" on its efficacy.

Why it matters: Slaoui told ABC's George Stephanopoulos on Sunday that he has not yet had contact with Joe Biden's transition team, as the president-elect prepares to inherit one of the country's biggest crises ahead of an expected vaccine distribution effort that would require massive logistical cooperation between states and the federal government.

In photos: Americans wait at food banks before Thanksgiving

Residents line up in their cars at a food distribution site in Clermont, Fla., Nov. 21. Photo: Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Thousands of Americans waited in long lines at food banks in the week before Thanksgiving to pick up turkeys, canned goods, broccoli and other vegetables.

Why it matters: As the holiday season approaches, families across the U.S. are in need of food assistance due to chronic unemployment and economic hardship caused by COVID-19 — and many food pantries already served an unprecedented number of people this spring.

Updated Nov 24, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Sen. Kelly Loeffler to return to campaign trail after 2nd negative test

Sen. Kelly Loeffler addresses supporters during a rally on Thursday. Photo: Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

Sen. Kelly Loeffler's (R-Ga.) campaign announced Monday that she "looks forward to getting back out on the campaign trail" after testing negative for COVID-19 for a second time, following earlier conflicting results.

Why it matters: Loeffler has been campaigning at events ahead of a Jan. 5 runoff in elections that'll decide which party holds the Senate majority. Vice President Mike Pence was with her on Friday.