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[Current Trending Issues in Special Education] How COVID-19 School Closures Have Impacted Special Education

[Current Trending Issues in Special Education] How COVID-19 School Closures Have Impacted Special Education

As schools across the country question when to reopen, it is essential to find ways to continue to provide learning opportunities and critical services to our students. The closing of schools and the increase in expectations imposed on caregivers has disrupted even the most stable educational supports—not to mention the struggles that students face.

Clearly traditional instruction has been interrupted, and this disruption has also brought to light questions concerning students’ instruction, continuity of education, and needed supports and access to wrap-around services for students under IEP and 504 considerations, just to name a few.

Many states and districts are demonstrating enormous creativity in serving students as schools remain closed. Local educational agents, (LEAs) are working hard to engage with parents and come up with long-term educational continuity plans. Given the many changes and disruptions in how we are approaching education that were caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, there are some consistencies and trends that must be discussed.

Moving Services to Online

The first and most unswerving consideration is the change that districts must embrace when buildings close. More than half the school children in the U.S. moved out of the classroom and transitioned to a different way of learning due to COVID-19. Many of these students have dedicated plans for instruction and assistance that fall outside of classroom expectations, such as IEPs and 504s, and are usually serviced additional supports. These special education supports and services once reviewed through face-to-face meetings of team players for the students had to move online. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) allows for alternative methods of participating in meetings when meeting in person is not possible, but this is the first time these meetings have moved online across the board.

IEP Meetings

There is a silver lining here, however. The flexibility that comes with meeting online allows for the scheduling of remote meetings that work on everyone’s schedule. It’s a new reality; however, the action of holding a remote meeting adds a different set of dynamics to manage, unlike the familiar dynamics in a face-to-face conference room meeting.

Consider the process, and when meeting online make sure to give each person time to share their thoughts, ideas, and concerns about the student’s progress. Students with IEPs and Section 504 Service Agreements, particularly those with physical, cognitive, and/or emotional issues typically receive an array of special services in school, including direct educational services by teachers, aides and trained special education staff. When moving to a call or virtual meeting the voices can become overwhelming and jumbled, so it’s important to continually clarify roles throughout the call.

Evaluations, IEP meetings, services—all these things are still supposed to be happening. he context of these meetings should remain student-centered and solutions based. The tone of advocacy, empathy, flexibility, and inclusion of all voice’s transfers to a virtual space—it just takes a conscious shift in how these qualities are conveyed by all involved.

District Policy

Several years ago, The Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities (COLSD) released the 2016 version of its annual publication Equity Matters: Digital and Online Learning for Students with Disabilities. It holds strong recommendations for the world we have accelerated into. It presents some red flags that need to be considered, including addressing some of the gaps in districts’ support systems for SPED students. Some concerns include:

  • More than half the states did not have any clear guidance/ policy for providing special education services in a virtual/online school setting
  • Legal compliance responsibilities associated with addressing the needs of students with disabilities distance learning nor was there ready a plan to teach these
  • Related services like OT PT and SLT need to develop into a credible online possibility
  • Parent role and partnership should be agreed upon
  • Social skill development for students with disabilities requires explicit direct instruction with purposeful feedback, looks and feels different in the online environment


According to the U.S. Department of Education, if a school is providing instruction to the general education populations, then special education and related services identified in the student’s IEP or 504 must continue, too. Obviously, evaluations that require observations in classroom are going to be difficult and must be modified but changing the lens through which we look at and evaluate progress, build goals and measure these goals is going to have to change. Fortunately, working online offers flexibility and processes not previously considered.

In March, the DOE issued a fact sheet to states suggesting informal guidelines from its interpretation of federal special education law as a result of the special circumstances levied by the COVID-19 outbreak. This developed some confusion and an issue across the country. Districts began implementing differing directives. The DOE memo provided suggestions for schools in how they might provide typical special education accommodations and services online, including “extensions of time for assignments, videos with accurate captioning or embedded sign language interpreting, accessible reading materials, and many speech or language services through video conferencing.” However, the process of implementing these plans was a challenge to some districts.

Still, one of the strongest takeaways from the DOE’s fact sheet reminded readers that continuing education at home due to COVID-19 school closures was not homeschooling, but rather emergency remote learning. Remote learning is not synonymous with online learning. It includes helping students engage with a variety of academic areas. It can provide opportunities to further engage students in the arts or interdisciplinary work when these resources are available. These resources can include video or audio conferences, 1:1 phone or video calls, email, work packets, projects, reading lists, online learning platforms, snail mail and other resources to effectively engage with students. If these processes were in place for the general education population, then they needed to be in place for the special populations.

Ways to monitor and maintain connections to these students with special needs in remote or emergency remote learning circumstances include:

Keep a record: Encourage families to keep a diary or running record of any regression that they notice in their child’s skills. Pay close attention to any emergency mental health treatment, one on one adult support to complete assignments, or medication changes. These should be noted in any IEP and progress noted.

Request home-based services: Health or high-risk status of family members may mean students will not be returning to the classroom when they reopen. In these circumstances, families should be encouraged to request “home or hospital” services, delivered remotely. School district musts be prepared with a plan for this very real possibility of increase in support.

Keep ongoing due process appeals: Keep in mind that districts need to be flexible with ongoing meetings and appeals. This is a great time to review processes, if meeting virtually, being able to meet on parent/caregiver’s timetable and provide more flexibility is the new normal. Meeting in the evening or outside the typical school day is an option if agreed upon by all team members, as this provides flexibility for the parents or caregivers. Grace and responsibility will be critical during this time.

Instructional Process

Students with IEPs or 504 classification require not just accommodations but modifications as well. This applies to the general education curriculum, and the specific grade standard. Granted, some of those accommodations may not be applicable now, especially if the continuity plan focuses on one-on-one instruction, or online learning. However, some of those accommodations may become even more vital. Digital resources and the flexibility of online tools has catapulted educators and learners into exploration of these assets. Educators can now explore the submission of a video versus a paper, a project versus a worksheet, collaboration online versus independent work.

While we must stay apart physically right now, it is heartening (but not surprising) to see so many of us coming together in so many ways to care for each other and our students. The confluence of technology-enhanced instruction, progress monitoring, competency-based education and student-centeredness has the potential to create truly inclusive educational environments. 

Today was a discussion on moving to online and the process we are perfecting. Take heart in understanding that this has been the result of a no option movement. There have been mistakes, but embrace them, make glorious and amazing mistakes, then learn from them and start the process all over.

Are you looking for ways to get your students back on track for graduation? Here are eight common questions answered to help your school or district get started with minimesters for credit recovery!