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New Report Highlights Virtual Learning Disparities for Students With Disabilities

When the pandemic closed schools in March, perhaps nobody was impacted more than students with disabilities. These classes, and ancillary therapies that reinforce and expand on class work, benefit from close interaction. So how has distance learning changed things?

A new report out from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) gives the first look into how schools managed two unique situations: special education and instruction for English language learners (ELL) during the spring 2020 term. The study was conducted as part of the GAO’s requirements for the CARES Act to identify and track the impact of money received and spent. Both groups of students struggled significantly with learning, the study showed.

In a letter to congressional committees the GAO said that there are 5 million ELL students and over 7 million special education students. Those numbers reflect about 10% and 14% of students nationwide, respectively.

To conduct the study, the GAO audited distance learning plans across 15 school districts that have high numbers of special education or English language learning students. They also interviewed officials from four of the districts, in addition to service providers like speech therapists and school psychologists.

For many ELL students access to technology was a major hurdle. One example given was a webinar one district put together on how to access the district’s distance learning material. Many ELL families did not have computers to be able to view the webinar in the first place.

While at home, many ELL students also have not had the chance to practice their English as much as they would in a school setting. Students living with families who do not speak English have also struggled with lack of teacher access to answer their questions, since family cannot provide language support.

For students who receive special education services the findings were similarly bleak. This group of students have individualized education programs (IEP) that often require coordination with several paraprofessionals like physical or occupational therapy, social work, speech language or audiology services, transportation, psychological services, and more, according to the report.

Of the 15 districts studied by the GAO, none of them included details about how these individualized services would be provided to special education students. Instead, many of the plans stated that parents of students with disabilities would be contacted individually by teachers.

Shortened school days and virtual instruction have made these services particularly hard for districts to adequately provide, the study found. Things like occupational therapy and physical therapy often require special equipment and hands-on instruction, which is unavailable in a virtual setting.

Students also may not have access at home to certain technology, like braille readers, that they use at school. The GAO said that in the interviews they did, they learned that parents of children with disabilities are “overwhelmed with the number of roles they were being asked to assume.” In some instances where parents’ work schedules do not allow them to assist their student, districts are still trying to come up with workable solutions.

On the plus side, regular IEP meetings have been easier and more efficient when held virtually, the GAO found. Virtual learning has also led to an increased awareness by general education teachers of how much work special education teams do on behalf of students.

In the short-term, some districts told the GAO they have been successfully addressing some of the challenges by “modifying instruction, holding virtual meetings with parents, and encouraging collaboration between general and special education teachers.” How well that strategy plays out as the pandemic wears on remains to be seen.

Header image via Alireza Attari on Unsplash