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Pandemic disproportionately impacts students with disabilities


This ongoing pandemic has caused challenges across all sectors and in everyone’s lives. Yet, we know that within each sector, the impact has not been equal.

School closures and shifts to online learning or reduced contact hours have been stressful for students, teachers, parents, administrators and even employers. Yet, a November report from the federal Government Accountability Office reveals that certain students (notably English learners and students with disabilities) have fared worse from the changes than others.

Students with disabilities usually have an Individualized Education Plan, which documents the individualized supports and services an eligible student should receive to support their educational success. The IEP may include a variety of specified services, including teacher’s aides, assistive technology, enhanced classes or therapies such as speech or occupational therapy.

As a part of every child’s right to a free public education, the IEP serves as a kind of contract between the school and the family. Even pre-pandemic, budget restrictions, staffing shortages and administrative barriers often made it challenging for school districts to effectively implement every child’s IEP. The abrupt shift to online learning in spring 2020 left school districts struggling to meet the educational needs of children with disabilities.

School districts have found that some services are more difficult to provide remotely than others. Therapies like speech, occupational and physical therapy rely on having a very good view of a child. This can be impossible when families do not have a good internet connection or with young children who do not sit quietly in front of a screen.

These challenges trickle down to the very youngest children. At Community Connections, our early intervention program for children younger than 3 relies on some of the same support services as the schools. Since April, distance intervention services have been either mandated or highly encouraged (depending on the status of virus spread). While early intervention has always relied heavily on coaching families and caregivers to provide therapies, an early interventionist’s greatest tool is their powers of observation. Distance platforms often mean the professional is unable to easily observe a child and assess the impact of any intervention.

Therapists serving children of all ages have also run into situations where a necessary intervention was impossible. One of our local occupational therapists ran into this when a young child needed fitting for an orthotic, a service that clearly could not happen over Zoom.

The GAO report shows that school districts have adopted some of the more effective tools from early intervention, including frequent meetings and collaboration with families. However, the GAO report also shows that it is not enough, and students with disabilities are not meeting the goals stipulated in their IEPs.

School districts are in a situation where they face unprecedented challenges. Yet, the consequences of our students with disabilities losing up to a year or more of effective educational supports is untenable. It is just one more opportunity COVID-19 has given us to be creative in our solutions to unexpected problems.

Tara Kiene is president/CEO of Community Connections Inc.

Tara Kiene