Opinion: What’s at Stake for Students with Disabilities During the COVID-19 Pandemic
By Linda Carling, Ed.D.
Dr. Linda Carling is an Associate Research Scientist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education Center for Technology in Education. She specializes in learning engagement and design and is a parent of a child with a disability.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools are in a situation like we have never known. With school buildings closed, teachers must quickly adapt, and for most, it is a completely new teaching format. Parents are required to play a part in education that so many are not prepared or equipped to handle, and both teachers and parents must juggle managing the continued education of students while also dealing with competing challenges at home.
Meanwhile, social media is full of messages meant to help ease the tension. Memes like “Let the children just enjoy their time at home; they will be fine” flood our feeds.
While I recognize and appreciate the efforts our school districts and teachers are making in this devastating situation, I do not share the “they will be fine” sentiment. For at-risk children, including students with disabilities, there is too much at stake.
I have an eight-year-old autistic son with an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Under the protection of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and through his IEP, my son receives multiple services, supports, and accommodations so that he can ultimately reach goals, learn, and thrive in school. Like other students with disabilities, my son relies on these supports to fully participate in instruction and acquire knowledge and skills. What will these supports look like when school is taking place remotely? When every educational moment counts, students like my son cannot afford the loss of over 25% of the school year.
Parents and students alike have worked so hard and overcome so many struggles to get where they are today. For these families, each milestone, and each mastered step— big or small — is one to be celebrated. Without appropriate action, students with disabilities can regress and fall further behind. For children like mine, there’s so much to lose. We cannot rely on making up services down the road. We cannot risk the progress we’ve already obtained and the progress yet to come.
In this unprecedented time, I propose we take unprecedented action. This is an opportunity to commit, create, and collaborate without the constraint of a school building, grades, and a limited schedule within a tightly packed school day.
Teams of educators must commit to discussing each student’s needs in order to provide individualized supports for students with disabilities. For example, students that receive instruction via self-paced packet work may need a regular (e.g., weekly) commitment from educators to teach new material and differentiating instruction to those students who may not have those prerequisite skills developed. Teachers can reach out to parents, assess progress, and provide direct support rather than require that parents take the initiative to reach out for help. Parents may need help to access and use technology, understand academic concepts, set up routines, and manage behavior.
There is flexibility in IDEA, and educators have the freedom to think differently about how to support students with disabilities. For the youngest children who have an Individualized Family Service Program (IFSP), all programming is individualized and takes place in their natural learning environment. School-based educators can take a very family-oriented approach to service delivery from that model that takes the child’s daily environment (e.g., the home) and family situation into account when setting goals and informing progress.
Building and maintaining a positive relationship with families is a key tenet of the IEP process. In this pandemic, parents are already being asked to take a significant role in educating their children. There has never been a better time for teachers to connect and partner with parents. Teachers and parents can collaboratively review the student’s IEP goals and determine where and how to work on them. Parents can be empowered to collect data (in a controlled environment), and, because they experience it firsthand, truly understand how their child struggles and succeeds. Teachers can help parents see how much they can accomplish at home.
Fellow educators, let’s take action and commit, create, and collaborate for our students with disabilities and their families. Let’s try, and learn, and try again.