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What Educational Equity for Students With Disabilities Looks Like During COVID-19

What does educational equity look like for students with disabilities?

This question has been posed in the media and online. I’ve had numerous discussions with civic leaders and they usually ended up answering with “access to internet and devices.”

My city, which has a large population of families who qualify for free and reduced lunches, invested in technology many years ago. Every student has access to a Chromebook. At the beginning of each school year, many notices and calls are sent to families to make sure they know about low-cost or free options for those who cannot afford internet service.

But now that we are in an unprecedented situation due to the coronavirus pandemic, I see that equity is about far more than a device and internet. Students with disabilities often have formal accommodations to work and test on paper, among many things this piece won’t be able to mention. My daughter, a senior with Down syndrome, fits in this group. While she accesses technology often, she does her work and testing on paper.

Today I printed an assignment for one of my daughter’s classes that was 70 pages long. I depend on my printer. And while I printed that, the image of someone without a printer, or the means to buy the amount of ink I have, was clear in my head. That is part of equity.

Nothing about educating a child with a significant disability in an inclusive environment is “fair.” More often than not, one parent has to amend their job/career to add the supportive teaching that is necessary at home. I have enlarged almost all my daughter’s assignments for all these years because her school does not have sufficient staff to do so. I have pre-taught her all these years because inclusion is still something foreign and new to most teachers. Sadly, I see inclusion in many school systems regressing. Everything else seems to be more important.

So as I printed that long assignment, I thought of the great educators we all know are out there — and what they can do right now.

1) General and special education teachers, let your students see your faces virtually by either Zooming a class / private session, or recording videos to be watched at a student’s convenience.

2) We have all seen the news clips of teachers doing parades and drives by students’ houses. I know my neighborhood school did that in week two. What if teachers did this on a regular basis, and dropped off packets with necessary materials to students? Then they could access teaching content online and also have physical materials to work with. Many studies have shown paper helps most students, regardless of if they have a disability or not.

3) Special education teachers need to be reaching out and contacting all their students. They need to be helping overloaded general education teachers with modifications and accommodations. Too many are absent right now in their students’ minds, while those who are showing up are going above and beyond, as always.

4) Paraprofessionals should be invaluable right now, supporting special and general education teachers, students and their families. During normal times, they are an unappreciated and undervalued resource. We cannot afford to continue that mistake right now.

5) Special education support personnel need to still be in place. Therapists can still be effective, perhaps in different ways, via Zoom.  Without them, regression happens. Behavior specialists are needed more than ever for many homes where parents desperately need help. Many students are not acclimating to this new normal well — and supports can make a huge difference.

6) All meetings should be including video so faces can be seen. This means IEP meetings as well as meetings for other reasons. Families, and the nonprofits who often help them, need to be careful that rights are not stripped away during this unprecedented time.

There are so many families struggling right now for medical, economic and emotional reasons. Our school systems are so important to each community. Right now they can be part of the glue that helps hold families together in this time of crisis. We can all rise together.

Professionals all over our great country are doing what I have mentioned and far more, but not in a unified way. Leadership needs to start at the top of each state, then each school district, and be consistent. I am writing this because as I have said before, too often students with disabilities are the last on everybody’s lists. Right now, they are the most vulnerable.  They are part of the equity discussion. Our leaders need to remember that and be held accountable.

For more on the coronavirus, check out the following stories from our community:

Getty image by Magda Istock.