The Status of the Pandemic Impact on Special Education Students
I started my career in education as a special education teacher. At the time, there was a hyperfocus on meeting the requirements set forth in the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA), which was later reauthorized as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). There was sweeping change to educational planning, delivery, and assessment for this sector of the most vulnerable students - students with disabilities. Similarly, the disproportionate effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on special education and services need to be met with a more intense focus on special education students this school year. A Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) study found that the pandemic had impacted students with disabilities disproportionately, with districts struggling to meet the needs of students with complex learning disabilities. Prolonged school closures kept students away from physical or cognitive therapy and hands-on instruction, while online learning platforms proved insufficient to ensure accessibility for students with a range of disabilities facing steeper learning losses and reporting higher absenteeism. Just as the pandemic illuminated many political, social, economic, and educational aspects of society, one aspect of educational delivery that continues to receive a great deal of attention is the education and supplemental services being provided to special education students during the current school year and the plan to make up for lost services during the pandemic.
During what I will refer to as the height of the pandemic (from March 2020 to the start of the 2021-2022 school year) and fully recognizing that we are still in it, I couldn’t help but think of my former special education students as we grappled with delivering, in some cases, very intense services to highly involved students. I wondered about how regularly they would attend, what support they would have, and how we would get occupational and speech therapy for them so that their gains would not be lost. I wondered how I could have handled the transition to online delivery of a customized and personalized education to students with documented disabilities, each with their own profound needs - and do it in a way that made a meaningful difference during this chaotic period. I knew in my heart and mind that it would be extremely difficult to deliver the Individualized Education Plan and the related services to many special education students from a remote location without the ability to be in-person. In some districts, special education personnel suited up in masks, gloves, and other pandemic paraphernalia to enter the home to provide services a few times a week because many IEP services are impossible to deliver virtually. Even at that, the risk to the providers was great and the service level was still compromised in a variety of settings.
In the aftermath of the remote learning phase of delivering education and related services, there is an urgency to make up for losses during this time, not just educational, but social, behavioral, and mental. A National Public Radio article published June 2021 shows that “roughly 7 million children in the U.S. receive special education services under a decades-old federal law - or did until the pandemic began. Many of those services slowed or stopped when schools physically shut down in spring 2020.”
So where do we go from here? Compensatory education, part of IDEA, is an equitable remedy to make up for the loss of a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) for a period of time. It is designed to put a student in the place they would have been had the student not been deprived of special education or related services. At this writing, IEP teams in school districts are navigating the processes outlined in IDEA to determine students’ present levels of performance and to design a program and placement for each student. If a special education student’s performance is behind where it was when schools moved from in-person instruction to remote learning or in a situation where students failed to make progress during remote learning, they will be eligible for compensatory services. The obvious dilemma with making up for loss is finding the time to do so. Currently, educators providing services to special education students are providing, in real-time, the services defined on the IEP. This situation does not afford the time to make up for the loss of services from March 2020 to the start of school year 2021-2022. Some say that making up for the loss of services that impacted students’ learning could take years. How can we accelerate the access and opportunity to what special education students need to not only meet the requirements but to genuinely provide the learning and services they need?
Tutoring as an Integral, Innovative Solution
I like the Harvard Graduate School of Education perspectives + opinions article written by Emily Boudreau, not because it offers up a silver bullet solution to making up learning losses for students in special education, but because it features some bright ideas and key takeaways from remote learning that may help courageous districts, schools, and educators innovate to provide the compensatory services students desperately need as well as unfinished learning for the masses. These include:
I was inspired by the subtle message of the importance and power of the collective IQ and energy to focus on opportunities rather than constraints as we reimagine the approach to the work educators and supportive stakeholders have in front of them. Planning for compensatory education is a highly individualized process requiring a highly individualized or small group remedy that will accelerate learning for special education students identified as needing these services.
Tutoring, particularly delivered in high-dosage models during school, has been studied for many years and has become a much more widely accepted path to student acceleration as evidenced by the explosion of published guidance from the Annenberg Institute and the launch of the National Student Support Accelerator. In fact, the inclusion of high-dosage tutoring in the recommendations from the Department of Education on the spending of ESSER funding provides a key high-leverage go-to strategy. This presentation highlights the research-based tutoring attributes uniquely situated in Littera Education’s high-dosage tutoring platform. These attributes will bring to life a highly prescriptive and personalized approach to providing compensatory education services on a one-to-one or small group tutor to student ratio. Even as an extension of the school day (before, after, and weekends), tutoring connected to a high-quality curriculum and driven by IEP goals delivered in a caring environment online or in-person can help districts meet the compensatory education mandate while ensuring students’ learning is being accelerated. As districts and schools think about the tall but necessary task of providing compensatory education services, I encourage you to explore Littera Education and contact us to help you innovate and provide a data-informed, student-centered solution for meeting the needs of identified students.
As I harken back to my early days as a special educator, I remember my students, each one bringing their own unique learning needs, background experiences, levels of family support, and personalities to class. They were special but in ways reaching beyond what special means in the context of special education. They were special because they taught me far more than I could ever teach them. I marveled at their perseverance, hope, appreciation, aspiration, struggle, and celebration wrapped up in the daily course of navigating school life with a diagnosed disability. I saw their transformation in person, every school day and I can only wonder how I would gauge the profound impacts of COVID-19 as they returned to school this year. Undoubtedly, they would need more time and attention than the day allows to accelerate their learning through compensatory services. One thing is certain: educators, families, and concerned stakeholders must demonstrate the same level of perseverance, hope, appreciation, struggle, commitment, and celebration that my former students demonstrated years ago if we are going to make a meaningful difference.
They are counting on us.