AuthorGrant, Crystal

Introduction 127 I. Students with Disabilities During COVID-19 130 II. The Impact of COVID-19 on Students of Color 133 III. Applicable Laws During the Pandemic 136 A. Special Education Services During March-June 2020 137 B. Special Education Services at the Start of the 2020-2021 School Year 138 Conclusion 139 INTRODUCTION

The COVID-19 (1) pandemic has had an undeniably devastating impact on the world. In the United States, the pandemic touched all facets of society as non-essential businesses closed, millions of people became ill, and thousands died. In the spring of 2020, pursuant to state-mandated stay-at-home orders, most U.S. schools physically closed their buildings. Some school districts presented students with the opportunity to complete the remainder of the school year at home through online remote instruction--others ended the school year early. While moving to online instruction was appreciated as a common-sense approach to a difficult and unprecedented situation, it was not a solution for many students with disabilities. Students with disabilities in majority low-income school districts and communities of color faced additional challenges due to their disabilities and social factors impacting their communities. (2) Many students lacked computers with updated technology like webcams, speakers, and reliable internet, a quiet place to work, or parents available to help them with assignments. (3)

The school districts that did not have the resources to transition quickly to online instruction were forced to end the school year prematurely. (4) Districts that continued to operate questioned whether they were legally compelled by the state education agencies to provide special education services remotely, and even when there was a clear duty to do so, financially strapped schools were simply not up to the task. (5) The challenges revealed during the pandemic serve as a reminder of the disparities in special education services between wealthier, better-resourced school districts and schools that are under-resourced. (6) Federal and state governments need to develop a more equitable infrastructure that will adequately support all students, especially in times of crisis.

This Essay explores the plight of students with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly those enrolled in under-resourced school districts. (7) To address these ongoing disparities, remediate student regression, and prevent further educational loss, we must act quickly to get resources to the students who need it most and to guide districts towards using these resources effectively. (8) This Essay questions whether federal and state governments are truly committed to creatively examining the current special education framework and adopting solutions that will prioritize expanding access to resources for students with disabilities. These solutions include an immediate advancement of funds to aid states and under-resourced school districts in implementing the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), adopting effective guidelines to address educational loss, and closing the digital divide by providing greater access to technology for all students and their parents.

Students with disabilities who need specialized instruction and accommodations in school receive services under the IDEA, (9) which funds states to provide educational programs to children with disabilities. (10) On average, it costs school districts more money to educate students with disabilities than those without disabilities. (11) However, Congress has never fully funded states with 40% of the special education costs that the IDEA promised. (12) This discrepancy between the monies promised and the amount actually provided has created inconsistencies in the way school districts implement the IDEA. (13) A student's access to appropriate special education services may vary depending on the resources available in their school district. (14) Local communities have been pleading for help with special education funding long before COVTD-19 made landfall in the United States. (15)

The special education funding challenges that schools face are very similar to their overall funding struggles, particularly in under-resourced, low-income, and low-performing school districts. (16) Less resourced school districts often receive the same funding as wealthier districts without accounting for the reality that their students have more needs. (17) The COVID-19 pandemic compounded these financial difficulties in under-resourced school districts that primarily serve students of color. As a result, special education services have become even more out of reach for students of color with disabilities. (18) The outlook for these students is bleak unless we take immediate action to counter the disruption the pandemic has caused and the pre-existing conditions in under-resourced school districts. Policy proposals should focus not only on increasing funding but also on providing districts with guidelines to use those resources on solutions--assessment and remediation of lost skills.


    Students with disabilities in under-resourced school districts are particularly vulnerable to educational loss during the COVID-19 pandemic. In general, people with disabilities who live in urban areas are prone to worse outcomes during a pandemic because urban health policy and practices have not adequately addressed their needs. (19) Schools in under-resourced urban areas are not insulated from these negative outcomes. School districts in affluent communities are twice as likely as their peers in low-income communities to set an expectation for teachers to deliver real-time or synchronous instruction to groups of students. (20) Despite the challenges brought on by COVID-19, schools remain responsible for ensuring that students with disabilities have access to the same information and programming as their non-disabled peers. (21) For children with disabilities, closing school buildings often results in the suspension or reduction of the services they receive from various providers--physical therapists, occupational services, and speech and language providers. These related services enable students to achieve their academic, functional, and social goals. Because their access to these services has been reduced or eliminated, students with disabilities are among the groups of students who are most likely to regress during the COVID-19 pandemic. (22)

    Working with students with disabilities online can be challenging. Pre-COVID, online teachers who worked with students with disabilities had a high turnover rate in different types of programs. (23) One reason for this turnover is that few teachers--both licensed special education and general education teachers, have received adequate training in online learning. (24) Little research has been dedicated to educating students with disabilities online and developing corresponding pedagogy. (25) School psychologists have found themselves in a legal and ethical bind where there are no educational regulations and guidelines for remote testing, and existing guidance is conflicting. The U.S. Department of Education (ED) has permitted remote testing if in-person testing is not required, but state psychology organizations have encouraged practitioners in school settings to delay testing under these conditions. (26) Given the circumstances that have led to remote learning and therapy, it is unlikely that teachers and school providers have received sufficient training and support to deliver effective special education and related services to all the students who need it. Some remote services--behavioral interventions and occupational and physical therapy--are difficult, if not impossible, to provide remotely. They often require equipment, and most parents do not have the specialized training to use them. (27)

    Schools can intervene to reduce learning gaps by continuing the IDEA's mandate to create individualized education programs (IEPs) based on a student's unique needs and circumstances. Researchers recommend strategies such as providing small group or one-to-one interventions three to five times per week. (28) Another important strategy to reduce learning gaps during school closures is to collect data regularly. (29) This ensures that interventions are data driven and aids the IEP team in making instructional decisions. (30) When school district evaluators are unavailable, districts should contract with independent providers or use emergency funding to access community-based services for their students. In some cases, a child's disability may interfere with their ability to access remote instruction, interventions, or related services. Students with visual impairments, mental health needs, or those who rely on expensive equipment in the school building face additional barriers. (31) For these students, their accommodations require in-person services delivered by an essential provider following the Centers for Disease Control and...

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