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The Unexpected Bright Side of Special Education During the Pandemic

Despite widespread inequities during the pandemic, many students receiving special education services have thrived because of remote learning.

March 9, 2021
Headshot of Kate Blanchard standing in front of white bookshelves full of various books. Kate has short hair and wearing a brown sweater.

Kate Blanchard

Managing Director, TFA’s Learner Variability and Special Education Initiative

Headshot of Kate Blanchard standing in front of white bookshelves full of various books. Kate has short hair and wearing a brown sweater.

Kate Blanchard

Managing Director, TFA’s Learner Variability and Special Education Initiative

During the pandemic, a narrative has taken hold about students receiving special education services—a  narrative that is largely negative. It paints the picture that students aren’t receiving the services they’re legally required to receive, that remote and virtual learning is hugely disruptive, and that, overall, it’s setting students with disabilities back by months or even years.

That narrative is often driven by an ableist lens that frames disability as a deficit and the COVID slide as a series of missed opportunities to behave and express learning in a more “normal” or non-disabled way. Structures that were already ableist in school settings can become aggravated in remote and virtual learning: participation grades, graded discussions, long stretches of screen time, expecting constant eye contact, mandatory oral participation, not being allowed to doodle or fidget, and more.

However, that narrative misses out on the more complicated truth: Many students with disabilities have found virtual and remote learning to be more liberating and accessible for their learning strengths, needs, and preferences. 

What should we be learning from this?

When the pandemic started shutting down schools, most districts really did struggle with how to provide special education services as they were transitioning to remote and virtual learning. In fact, many districts tried to dodge the ball altogether and, for a few months in the spring, special education advocates and families were deeply concerned that the U.S. Department of Education might grant waivers to schools to exempt them from providing special education services in remote and virtual learning. However, while the DOE ended up denying waivers, schools and districts continued to struggle to figure out how to provide special education services. Some services had been provided 1:1 support when school was in person and other services were tricky to figure out how to do well on online platforms—like occupational and physical therapy. This led to continued disruptions for both logistical but also health and safety reasons.

All of this led to a considerable interruption in services to students in special education around the country, and many districts and families are still working to this day to figure out when or how to hold IEP meetings and provide compensatory services for weeks or months of missed special education services. And we must reckon with the fact that during a pandemic that disproportionately impacted BIPOC communities and people with disabilities, we collectively dropped the ball for students receiving special education services, and we need to consider the continued consequences of that massive error.

“We’ve spent time, money, and resources on systems and infrastructure over the past year that theoretically could enable us to be more flexible with students even after we’ve all 'returned to normal.'”

Kate Blanchard

Managing Director of Learner Variability & Special Education Initiative, Teach For America

Las Vegas '05

While some of this narrative is unequivocally true and appalling, it’s a more nuanced story than that for individual students. In fact, there are some students out there who are thriving. 

John, a seventh grader featured in a recent Hechinger Report story, has both ADHD and a language disorder. He found himself actually learning better in a remote setting than he had in person. “I wish I could do this in school, I bet I could do so much better, and I could concentrate better,” John told the Hechinger Report. His mother added that John “misses friends, obviously, but at the same time, I can tell that there was a huge change in his stress levels, and he was able to concentrate on his schoolwork. He enjoyed learning again. Before, school was kind of tedious for him.” John even ended up earning a certificate of excellence in remote learning.

John is far from the only student doing better with remote schooling than in physical classrooms, as educators have rethought how to reach all of their students and collaborate with families in different ways, and as students have experienced different learning environments. Teachers have needed to reconsider how to reach students in ways that meet their learning strengths, needs, and preferences—something that IEPs have long pledged to do but that all too frequently doesn’t happen. Teachers have grown accustomed to using closed captioning, recording lessons for students, adjusting their pace or even deadlines to fit student and family schedules, teaching all students to use assistive technology, and more. 

As a consequence, many students with ADHD, sensory processing disorders, autism, and other disabilities are doing quite well with different aspects of remote and virtual learning. Distractions and overall classroom and social stressors are lower. Students are able to pace their learning, take breaks as needed, and they have the freedom to fidget, stim (or practice self-stimulation), and process as best suits their learning strengths, needs, and preferences, which wasn’t always true in physical classrooms. This can be liberating and empowering for students and has led to many of them feeling more successful in some ways in virtual learning than they have in person. 

“In some of my conversations with some district leaders across the country, they feel like it’s gotten better for some kids because there’s more inclusive practices, and they don’t want to go back,” Lauren Katzman, the executive director of the Urban Collaborative, a network of school districts focused on improving outcomes for students with disabilities, told the Hechinger Report in the same story that featured John.

How do we reconcile such seemingly disparate narratives? And what do we do about it, especially as we consider reopening schools and take the first steps back into the physical classroom? What should we carry forward from remote and virtual learning?

As we start a “return to normal,” we should keep front of mind that “normal” has never actually worked for all of our students, particularly many of our students with disabilities. We should be using pedagogical frameworks like Culturally Relevant Pedagogy and Universal Design for Learning to ensure all of our students, including those that receive special education services, can access rigorous, grade-level curricula that are relevant and accessible to them and are inclusive of their learning strengths, needs, and preferences. That should be happening regardless of where that learning environment is, be it in person or remote. 

On top of that, we must value and plan for what’s in the best interest of the child. That could include more check-ins with students, more technology use, increased flexibility over where or when work is due, and asking students directly what’s working for them and then committing to implementing their suggestions. 

We’ve spent time, money, and resources on systems and infrastructure over the past year that theoretically could enable us to be more flexible with students even after we’ve all “returned to normal.” We could keep recording lessons so that students have an option to rewatch sections to support their processing, turn on captioning in slide decks for classroom presentations, and give students choice over what lessens distractions for them, such as listening to music, setting their own pace, or taking breaks. 

We all want students to have agency and feel successful, empowered, and engaged in their learning. Let’s use what we now have at our disposal to untether ourselves from our deeply held beliefs about what education looks like and reimagine what the future could look like for our children.

Kate Blanchard, a 2005 Teach For America alumnus, served as an elementary special educator in Las Vegas and is currently the managing director of TFA’s Learner Variability and Special Education Initiative.

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The opinions expressed in this piece, and all others in our Opinion section, represent those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Teach For America organization.

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