Special Education Equity in the Era of COVID-19

Disabled pupil smiling at camera in classroom

With the onset of the coronavirus (COVID-19), school districts, institutions of higher education, and educators are finding themselves in uncharted territory. As schools across the nation are forced to shut their doors, finding ways to best serve all students equitably has never been more urgent. This is especially true for our most vulnerable students—those with disabilities.

COVID-19 hit hard and fast. And with that, so did the shift from in-school instruction to online learning. We know that special education students receive, consume, and apply information differently in face-to-face settings versus online environments. However, the rapid onset of COVID-19 did not give educators, parents, or students time to adequately prepare for the transition.

On March 12 and again on March 21, the U.S. Department of Education published guidance and a Supplemental Fact Sheet to address how to ensure students with disabilities continue to receive the services required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Included in the document are guidelines on when to consider using a distance learning plan that would include online or virtual instruction, standards -based activities, and accommodations to ensure access to the curriculum.

Recognizing the Challenges

While there are many high-quality, online learning environments, they often require a substantial amount of background knowledge and previous professional development in order to engage students effectively. Gaps in technological literacy between educators in well-resourced communities and those with limited resources are emerging. We have exemplary, highly-trained special education teachers who have been had experience instructing students in an online environment. It is both a significant and challenging lift for in-class educators to adjust and pivot their pedagogy and skills to an online format, especially when adapting coursework to meet the various needs of their students.

Educators also face the challenge of ensuring students understand how to navigate the online learning environment, parents know how to support their children, and instruction is presented in a meaningful way. Complicating this effort are limited resources including adequate hardware, software, and broadband access.

The online environment can provide a rigorous education experience, but students need tools to ensure their success. At the university level, students who take online learning classes are often given, at minimum, some training and development prior to their courses. Students who haven’t been exposed to online learning need to understand how to access, apply, and analyze the curriculum in an unfamiliar environment. Right now, we have a host of university and K-12 students who are immediately shifting to online learning, without having had any previous training or development. And while part of the dilemma is access to the internet, the other factor is how they navigate online instruction to their benefit.

We would be remiss not to examine the impact that online learning is having on parents of students with disabilities. Without face-to-face teaching support, families are not only handling technology issues, but they are also managing their child’s need for movement throughout the day, helping with self-regulation and focus skills, and doubling as educators—all while they are often working from home.

Implementing Opportunities

While online learning holds great promise, AACTE member institution University of Kansas is taking the lead on conducting research and building a network of collaborators to explore how online instruction should be designed and delivered to improve student outcomes through its Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities (COLSD). Using the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework as a guide, COLSD’s mission is to research how online learning can be made more accessible, engaging, and effective for K-12 learners with disabilities by investigating approaches that address learner variability within the range of conditions under which online learning occurs.

AACTE is encouraging our members, as well as states, to develop collaborations between districts and educator preparation programs to meet the increased demands of special educators. In particular, we urge stakeholders to identify opportunities for special education teacher candidates to continue their contributions to the educational advancement of students with disabilities (e.g., clinical practice opportunities or paraprofessionals in temporary positions) for the duration of the impact of COVID-19 on school systems.

AACTE member institution Bowling Green State University is doing tremendous work in their districts to meet the increased demands on special education teachers. For example, teacher candidates who are still in some form of their local clinical practice experience are writing curriculum and modules to support their supervising teachers, virtually working with students with disabilities, and supporting parents as they navigate online learning for their children.

To support our member institutions, AACTE is collaborating with Mursion to spread the word about a virtual-reality classroom with simulated students. The Mursion clinical experience provides teacher candidates, who no longer have access to face-to-face teaching environments, the opportunity to develop their pedagogical practice through virtual reality, ensuring they are still well prepared before they enter the classroom.

COVID-19 has presented a number of challenges to special education in providing equity for all students. However, with these challenges come opportunities to examine and implement online programs and practices that improve outcomes for students with disabilities. To start, we must infuse technological literacy throughout our education programs to equip all of our education candidates with the skills and knowledge they need for both now and into the future.

Lynn M. Gangone is the president and chief executive officer at the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE).
Jacqueline is the assistant vice president of programs & professional learning at the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE).

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