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Schools need state support to overcome pandemic obstacles

When schools physically shut down in the spring of 2020, many students with disabilities had limited or no access to their special education services (e.g., modified instruction, behavioral counseling, and speech and physical therapy). It is unclear how many students with disabilities have not received appropriate public education during the pandemic. However, records from the U.S. Department of Education show a substantial increase in the number of pending cases of complaints that school districts failed to meet the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) procedural requirements or provide Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) for students with disabilities.

To comply with the FAPE provisions, school districts must collaborate with parents of students with disabilities, assess students’ unique needs, and develop and implement an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). As a primary mechanism to ensure that students with disabilities receive appropriate educational programs and services that support their learning, a student’s IEP may need to be updated when schools address the learning loss caused by the pandemic. However, some school districts have delayed or reduced the educational services for students with disabilities.

A big challenge for local school districts is that many states have not developed effective guidance, an efficient monitoring system, or multilayer supportive policies. Data collected by a nonpartisan research organization show that as of September 2021, only 26 states had provided guidelines on how to serve students with disabilities for the 2021-22 school year.

In some states, parents and educators have been frustrated about the slow and lengthy process that school districts must go through to solve the issues related to the pandemic-related delayed services. By contrast, some states have started prioritizing services that students with disabilities need to remedy their skill loss or lack of academic progress. This lack of progress is due to the districts’ inability to provide FAPE when using alternative instructional models (e.g., remote learning, virtual and in-person blended learning) due to the pandemic.

Technology gap

Least restrictive environment (LRE) means that students with disabilities should receive their education alongside their peers without disabilities to the maximum extent appropriate. As a guiding principle, LRE requires that schools should not remove students with disabilities from the general education classroom unless learning cannot be achieved even with the use of supplementary aids and services. The LRE principle plays a critical role in determining not only where a student will spend her time in school but also how special education services will be provided.

Before the pandemic, among all students ages 6 to 21 served under IDEA, 95 percent were enrolled in regular schools in the fall of 2019. The percentage who spent most of the school day (i.e., 80 percent or more of their time) in general classes in regular schools increased from 59 percent to 65 percent between 2009 and 2019. During the pandemic, figuring out how to educate students with disabilities in a virtual learning environment has become a huge challenge. The technology gap is the unequal access to technology tools and unequal access to educators who are proficient at using technology to teach. It challenges the goal of maximizing the education environment to provide the most appropriate learning opportunities for each student with disabilities.

The pandemic highlighted the digital divide in education, commonly known as the homework gap. In a COVID-19 global survey conducted by the World Bank’s Inclusive Education Initiative, two areas were identified as obstacles to implementing effective remote learning: inadequate infrastructure and the absence of trained teachers who could quickly transition to online models of teaching. Inadequate infrastructure refers to the following challenges for students with disabilities to access equal learning opportunities:

Lack of access to technology devices.

Not enough devices for learners with disabilities.

Devices that are inaccessible or do not fit the needs of learners with disabilities.

Lack of internet connection or high costs of data packages.

Unstable internet connection.

Additionally, data from the Nation’s Report Card (NAEP) show that in the states that met the IDEA requirements, students with disabilities were more likely to have teachers that were skillful using computers and the internet, compared with the states that did not meet the IDEA requirements.

Decline in Intervention Services

Research suggests that far fewer children than usual were accessing early intervention services during the pandemic. According to the IDEA Infant and Toddler Coordinators Association, in the first three months of the pandemic, the rates of referral to early intervention services decreased in 45 states. In 24 of those states, referral rates dropped by 25 percent or more. 

Across all age spans, COVID-19 created obstacles for schools to teach and serve students with disabilities. However, under IDEA, it is the state’s responsibility to ensure that all students with disabilities have access to FAPE and are educated to the maximum extent appropriate alongside their general education peers. To meet these challenges, states should provide timely guidance for school districts, monitor the practices of districts, and support districts with funds and data.

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2020 State of the Association

Full of challenge and change, 2020 was like no other year. NSBA's State of the Association provides a snapshot of the association's advocacy and member services work as well as our ongoing transformation.