The Effects of COVID-19 on Special Education

September 17, 2020

The Effects of COVID-19 on Special Education (And What You Can Do About It)

As COVID-19 continues to dominate our daily lives in countless ways, we have all been affected in one way or another. But families that include children with special needs are experiencing a particularly difficult and unique set of challenges. In our previous recent posts, we’ve explored how families and individuals with developmental disabilities can cope. Today, we’ll focus on families with school-age children and how the pandemic is affecting their abilities to get the educations they need. We’ll also offer some suggestions for navigating this challenging time.
What’s Happening
Parents everywhere have railed against virtual learning and have been vocal about their families’ struggles. Indeed, it’s hard enough for typically developing kids to get what they need from hours spent in front of a computer screen. But for children with developmental disabilities, it’s often virtually impossible.
Children with developmental disabilities very often need a host of services that include physical, occupational, speech, and/or behavioral therapies, along with an array of learning supports, from special equipment to 1:1 aides, and much, much more. A screen cannot replace the specialized care, adaptive equipment, and unique learning environment of the special-education classroom, which often boasts the support of many experienced professionals rather than a single loving but exhausted parent. The ancillary therapies and supports that make learning possible at all for these children have all but disappeared.
How It’s Affecting Children and Families
It’s little wonder then, that the pandemic could upend so many lives and disrupt so many children’s educations. Setting aside the debate regarding the necessity of virtual schooling, the fact remains that children with developmental disabilities are significantly less likely than their typically developing peers to get what they need from a virtual educational model. What’s more, children with developmental disabilities often thrive in a structured environment with a predictable routine—and COVID-19 has been anything but predictable. Children and young adults have been sent into a tailspin simply because of the change in circumstances and daily lives. Behaviors have intensified, anxieties have been exacerbated, hard-won gains have been lost.
In the best of times, parents of children with developmental disabilities may struggle to get their children the services they need and deserve. Now, parents are fighting those battles all over again, trying to get their children what they need. But this time there’s no playbook, no instruction manual, no older, wiser friend who has been there before.
Teachers are doing their absolute best, parents acknowledge. It’s the virtual learning environment in itself that’s the problem, and the fact that many parents feel unsupported by their districts and the administration. In online support groups, they express feelings of frustration, anger, fear, fatigue, and a sense of being left behind or forgotten.
What You Can Do About It
Yes, this situation can be pretty challenging, we know. But we want to help. Here are a few suggestions:
Encourage Creativity: Ask the school to create a virtual learning component for each IEP goal that allows each goal to be worked on at home—with the associated tasks and strategies tailored to the unique home environment and circumstances of that family. For example, if a child’s goal is to able to walk up a set of stairs, but the home he lives in has no stairs, the IEP should state that the child will instead need to step on and off an object repeatedly to work the same muscles.
Be specific and direct: Determine which of your child’s services or accommodations are most important and prioritize those that you feel are absolutely indispensable. Focus on getting those needs met. Remember that you’re not letting everything else become less important forever—just for now. Ask for specific assistive technologies that can be borrowed or provided by the school to help your child learn at home.
Put it in writing: Any complaint, concern, question, or request should be put in writing, each and every time. This will ensure your message is received and minimizes the chances that it will be misinterpreted or misconstrued. Most importantly, it provides a complete record of all your communications with the school. Any time you speak with someone on the phone and she/he gives you information, ask that she/he follow up with an email confirming what was just discussed or agreed upon.
Contact SPAN: The Parent Advocacy Network for New Jersey has a warm line for parents available at 973.642.8100. A specialist will assist you by answering questions, connecting you to parent learning opportunities, and providing advice, advocacy, and support.
Visit SPAN’s website: the organization has a bevy of important information available, including a range of fact sheets and resources. This sheet on remote learning offers tips on how to motivate your child as well as templates for requesting compensatory education and a log to help you track the services your child is currently receiving (more on that below). Educational resources and parent support links are also available.
Consider an attorney or advocate: Some parents prefer to enlist the support of an attorney, while others prefer an advocate. has a great explanatory post on the difference between the two.
Practice self-care: Perhaps the most important task on this list is to care for yourself. Vent, cry, connect with others on social media, go for a run, take a (virtual) boxing class, enlist the help of a friend or family member so you can get a break. Visit our post on self-care for more ideas.
Preparing for What Comes Next
Throughout this time, document exactly what services your child is receiving and the progress that has been seen since virtual learning began. This is critical because once school is back in session in person, your child may be eligible for compensatory education. The need for this service is determined on a case-by-case basis, and the point of it is to replace the educational services the student should have received. The goal is to place the student in the same position he or she would have been in, had the school district not failed to provide a free and appropriate public education.
Because of this, it’s incredibly important for you to document the services that were provided and how much you child has progressed—or regressed—during the pandemic. You should also keep track of all costs you incurred to provide alternative academic services during the time period you feel your child didn’t get what he or she needed.
Take a Deep Breath
We know it’s tough. There is so much to do. It’s exhausting and can be lonely at times. But parents of children with developmental disabilities are among the toughest and bravest in the world. You have friends and allies, including the folks here at SCARC. Daele Phlegar is our senior coordinator of family support, and her email address is [email protected]. Please don’t hesitate to reach out at any time