COVID-19 School Closing Are Causing Special Needs Students To Fall Further Behind Than Their Non-Classified Peers
Parents of students with special needs are concerned that their children are more negatively impacted by school closings than students who are not classified. They claim that their children are lagging academically and developmentally. Further, they claim they are also missing developmental milestones and losing recently-acquired key skills necessary for an independent life. Distance-learning is not providing the closeness that these students need to overcome their impediments to learning caused by their disabilities. IEP directed services such as occupational or physical therapy, speech services, behavioral therapy, and various special education teachers in the classroom for adaptive special education and special subjects have not been available as they were prior to the school closings. Instead, students are suddenly at home with only their friends and family. Social and emotional interactions with peers have been greatly curtailed. Self confidence is greatly diminished.
The needs of students with disabilities vary. Many students struggle to use computers. Some need adaptive technology. Many need lessons to be modified or require adult support to focus on and complete their work. Deaf and blind students have problems that cannot be addressed on-line. Some students cannot simply log onto a computer and begin working. At school, they had a teacher or a paraprofessional guide them through the process. Then, they are assisted or directed in doing the coursework. At school, these students get special, individualized attention as per their IEPs. They are guided by teachers and paraprofessionals who have received special training and are familiar with each child’s particular needs. They know how the students think and act. Transforming from that atmosphere to an on-line learning environment has caused many of the students to become frustrated and “give up” without that guidance and assistance. A large percentage of students don’t even log in any longer. This percentage was estimated to be as high as 45% toward the end of May.
Transition students who are preparing to graduate are in an especially difficult situation. On-site job training may not be available. They are also deprived of practicing the social skills required to enter the work world. Further, their IEPs require activities in transitioning from high school to college or the work force.
There are 7 million students with disabilities in the United States (14% of national public-school enrollment). Schools have yet to determine how to provide the proper IEP- listed services in an on-line learning environment.
Although it has not happened in New Jersey, elsewhere, school districts are opting not to offer online instruction to anyone, since they are unable to do it for everyone, thereby violating Federal Law.
Many lawsuits have been filed by the parents of special needs students over the efficacy of remote learning for their children, citing how the students are struggling with the remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. The lawsuits claim that the millions of special needs children have been devastated by the remote learning without the assistance specified in their IEPs. Incidents mentioned in the lawsuits include a number of diverse cases.
- One autistic child has a rare chromosomal abnormality which is not being addressed by the district.
- A student who had been 95% potty-trained, has regressed to the point where she is constantly losing control of her bodily functions
- An 11-year old girl missed her classmates so much that she has reverted back to crawling instead of walking. Further, she has stopped using her communication device.
- A fifth grader uses an assisted communication device at school. She receives speech therapy three times weekly, and has a one-on-one paraprofessional who helps her remain on task. She also has an inclusion specialist who checks on her during the day to offer assistance for her academic needs. She has been deprived of these services since the school closings.
Some parents have thought about filing a class action suit. However, it is unlikely that such a move can gain traction. Special education students have individual needs and abilities. That is why they have IEPs. It has been opined that a class action would be denied on those grounds. But some imaginative attorney could come up with something.
Advocates and attorneys across the country who specialize in the education of students in need claim that remote learning does not work very well for many special education students. A 14-year old austistic boy in Virginia advocates for his fellow students through a group called Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint. He claims the pandemic has made existing inequalities worse.
Schools with deaf and hard-of-hearing students have difficulty using Zoom or similar platforms when using American Sign Language (ASL). If many students are being taught, the individual displays get smaller. Seeing and understanding the ASL teacher becomes very difficult. Consequently, for many such students, whose families do not communicate using sign language, the classroom was the only environment where they could communicate with other deaf peers. Similar problems exist with sight-impaired students. Some subjects like geography or geometry are often taught with tactile models. Such devices are unavailable in the on-line learning environments. These are lessons that cannot be taught remotely. Students with cortical visual impairments need constant exposure to bright objects moving in certain patterns. In all of these cases, the consequences of not doing it for a while (the school closings) mean they could suffer severe losses without the repetitious use. “Use it or lose it.”
Students with special needs require programming that is special. That is the whole point: special education. That is why they have an Individualized Educational Plan. State directors of Special Education across the country acknowledge that students with special needs, their parents, and their teachers face overwhelming challenges.
It is unknown what the long-term effects will be on students with special needs. Many predict a major regression and recoupment in their learning. This already occurs when students with special needs return from summer vacation or even shorter Winter breaks. A name has been coined for it: Summer Slide. Comparing regression during summer breaks to those during the much shorter Winter breaks shows that the longer students are gone, the more regression occurs and they fall farther behind. Researchers have a name for it, melt of skills, which applies to all students in general. However, it is believed that the loses are even greater among students with special needs. Autistic children can lose the social skills they developed in school if they do not continue to practice in school.
In light of all of the above, it is evident that a more hands-on approach to learning is required for many children with special needs. Whether it comes from the United States Department of Education, the individual States’ Departments of Education, or the courts – until then children with special needs will continue to fall further behind than their non-classified peers; and their futures will be more adversely affected.