How Schools Can Tailor Remote Learning to Students with Disabilities

Published September 15, 2020

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage, school districts across the U.S. have debated whether to reopen their buildings, go back to remote learning, or try some combination of the two. These discussions, which will be ongoing throughout the school year, should closely consider the needs of students with disabilities.

Those needs vary tremendously based on the disability, and therefore so will the effects of remote learning. For students who have mobility issues, but are otherwise not disabled, remote learning could actually level the playing field. No longer would they have to get to and from school buildings (and to and from classes within those buildings) to have the same educational experience as their non-disabled peers.

But for students with other types of disabilities, especially learning disabilities or cognitive/behavioral delays, remote learning presents more challenges.

Many of these students have individualized education programs, or IEPs. For them, in-person school doesn’t just mean having a teacher physically present, it also may mean having a paraeducator, speech therapist or other professional to work with one-on-one.

IEPs are contracts that outline the services students with disabilities are entitled to so that they can have the same educational opportunities as their non-disabled peers. They are legally binding. Yet states have struggled to reconcile their contractual IEP obligations with the reality of closed school buildings and remote learning forced on them by the pandemic, despite the U.S. Department of Education granting schools greater regulatory flexibility in March.

In New York, for example, the governor signed an executive order allowing schools to reopen only for in-person special education services over the summer, but school districts reportedly had trouble making it happen.

Parents in some states have sued to try to enforce their kids’ IEPs. But in many cases, parents nationwide have instead decided to provide their children’s special education services themselves, sometimes with professionals coaching them via videoconference.

According to Edutopia, a website funded by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, there are several things school districts should be doing to make it easier for those families:

  • Check in on the health of students first, and not just health in terms of COVID-19. For some low-income students, school breakfast and lunch may be their only substantial meals of the day. Making sure they’re getting fed is key for all students learning remotely, including special ed students.
  • Make sure everyone understands the IEP. Get the parents a copy of the plan if they don’t already have one and schedule a phone call or videoconference to talk about it.
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  • IEP goals that are centered on social skills like sharing may be difficult, especially if the student doesn’t have siblings. Consider assigning the student to write a story about sharing instead.
  • Provide tools and behavior strategies: Special education workers are trained to keep their students engaged and focused. Any of that training (or online resources) they can impart to parents will not only help with academics, but with everyday home life.
  • Schedule regular communication: Don’t end one online help session without providing a specific date and time for the next session. And be flexible with parents’ schedules if you can.
  • Get creative IEPs shouldn’t be overly prescriptive. They are a means to an end: reaching certain behavioral or academic goals. If there are other ways to progress toward those goals - like playing games or doing art projects - now is the time to try them.