There’s already a reported achievement gap for K-12 students with disabilities, and the coronavirus pandemic may be widening it.
“For some, in particular younger students, students learning English, students with learning differences and disabilities, and those who were struggling before school facilities were closed, there may be a lifelong impact if they are not back in school sometime soon,” Austin Beutner, superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District, recently remarked.
Under federal law, K-12 students with disabilities who qualify are required to receive a public education and related services equal to their peers for free. Seven million young people receive special instruction in public schools nationwide.
Some parents acknowledge remote learning has been tough.
“It just adds more to the picture," said Sarah King, whose child has special needs. "Am I giving him the special education that he needs? Am I giving him the speech therapy that he needs? Or am I working well enough with the school? Will he do well enough at home receiving that? So there's just a lot to think about."
Officials in places like Los Angeles reported that only about half of their students with disabilities participated in remote learning each week this spring.
And a recent national survey of roughly 3,500 schools found that districts appeared to have done less for disabled students compared to their general-education peers this spring.
“This spring was challenging,” said Martin Odima, a special education teacher in Minnesota.
He says while his district has been embracing iPads and other technology for years, remote learning still presented some hurdles.
“The challenge was, for teachers, being able to transfer a lot of the things we're doing in person online," he said. "For families, a lot of the pressure was put on families to be able to support their kids at home. These students have been at school, and their cognitive load is shared amongst seven or eight different staff members, but then when they're at home, all of that is from the parent.”
And now as many states continue to see spikes in coronavirus cases and leaders weigh reopening plans, many families must decide if their students should return to in-person classes in the fall. It can be a tough choice.
“Many of our children with special needs are medically complex. They have underlying medical problems and challenges," said Michelle Norman, a parent of a child with special needs and executive director of Partners in Promise. "And so, it's just a lot of burden on your shoulders: 'Am I making the right decision? Am I making a decision that's going to kill them?’”
A report out this week from a national group of scientists encourages younger kids and students with disabilities to return to school buildings with precautions in the fall. They say these students would benefit from getting in-person services that don’t translate as well to a digital screen, like occupational or physical therapy.
Some experts say more classroom time may be a good idea, but admit that returning is a complicated decision for everyone involved.
“For a lot of kids who require services and support to be successful in school, routine can be really important," said Lauren Morando Rhim, executive director of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools. "And lack of routine can really disrupt their instruction. And I don't envy the school administrators who are trying to make the right call.”