Special education is a challenge during COVID-19
Wednesday, September 16, 2020
There have been numerous debates on the pros and cons of e-learning during the pandemic. The school year has started, and a large portion of the nation's K-12 children are learning virtually. It is not an ideal situation, but it seems to be the best way to keep them safe from the virus.
But providing the same services to students with disabilities has been quite a challenge. Special education administrators across the nation are struggling to get their online learning programs off the ground.
Many schools that averred they would be ready with online learning tools for all students are now struggling, especially when it comes to providing equal opportunities for all students. This has led to a troubling opportunity gap. For students with disabilities, online learning can be even more complex.
Federal law mandates special education students enjoy the same benefits and resources as regular students, including online learning. But at this point, there seems to be unclear guidance from the U.S. Department of Education and state laws that regulate virtual special sessions. The continuing uncertainty has seen some districts shut down their online learning for special ed for the time being.
While school districts want to abide by federal law, they are unsure how to cater to their special needs children with a generic distance learning plan. Despite supplying thousands of tablets to children, they fear that they could violate state and federal mandates providing equal access to education.
Districts are in a dilemma. If they don't continue with lessons for all, they may lose federal funding. They face the same risks if they cannot provide accommodations or equitable services to students with disabilities.
In both cases, schools also face the risk of potential legal action and complaints from parents. If they run afoul of federal civil rights laws, they will not just have lawsuits but disability rights advocates after them as well. Unless they can develop alternate access for special needs children that is equally effective like online learning, their woes will continue.
The federal Education Department has announced that it is working on the subject and plans to issue additional guidance on special education soon.
States must also guide schools on meeting deadlines to determine student eligibility for special education services. Added to this, they must comply with mandates governing Individualized Education Program (IEP) hearings.
Parents of students with disabilities are especially worried. The daily routine and structured school environment are essential to their children's growth and healthy development. School closures have disrupted that routine, and the loss of specialized services is placing a huge burden on them. Parents worry that their children will regress and lose hard-earned academic and mobility skills. No matter hard they try, they cannot help as much as a structured school environment can.
Some speech-language therapists are working on a hybrid model to help children, but the results will only be evident with more time. The critical services they provide will help mitigate the knowledge gap that occurs during the school closures. But no one has all the answers.
The California Department of Education is among the forerunners looking at specific recommendations for students in special education. It plans to create an advisory group that will review the existing mandate with districts' flexibility options.
Online instruction may be used, but teachers have to keep in mind that their special needs kids must have individual, in-person attention. They are connecting with parents, advising them on verbal and physical therapy techniques. Some are trying to visit students' homes to stay in touch, but the quarantine has made that difficult.
Learning-disabled students need assistance with regular schoolwork that may not be possible via e-learning. They also need speech and behavior therapy, occupational and physical therapy, along with specialized devices to help them communicate. But the question is: how to provide all these when social distancing is the need of the hour?
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