The Double Challenge of Going Back to School for Students With Disabilities

Students with disabilities BELatina Latinx
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The Covid-19 pandemic has been emotionally, socially, and academically challenging for many children and families, as kids were forced to isolate and adapt to virtual schooling for much of the past year and a half. 

While most kids struggled in one way or another, and many students fell behind with home learning, one population of kids was impacted exponentially: students with disabilities. 

Disabled students and children with special needs were in many ways left behind when school doors shuttered, and educators were forced to reinvent their teaching to fit a virtual classroom. 

Now, as schools prepare to reopen their doors for in-person learning, those same students with disabilities will once again suffer, as some of the digital accommodations they became accustomed to will be taken away when they go back to school. 

The difficulty of virtual education for students with disabilities

According to the U.S. Department of Education, just over 7 million (about 14 percent) of public-school students in the United States receive special education services. 

Those millions of children are guaranteed a free and appropriate public-school education thanks to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), passed in 1975 to protect special needs students and provide them with the education they deserve. 

While in regular, non-pandemic years measures are taken to protect students with special needs, that has been especially challenging during the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s undeniable that the global health crisis has posed significant challenges for schools in meeting the needs of all children, but children with disabilities have suffered exponentially during virtual learning.

A survey released in May 2020 by the advocacy group Parents Together found that 40 percent of kids in special education hadn’t received any support at all, even though they should be receiving individualized support through Individualized Educational Programs (IEPs). 

With an in-person school setting, these students with special needs could access individualized attention from highly trained professionals to work with their unique ways of processing information. 

With home learning, and no ability to connect with specialists in person, special-needs students suffered. But while many students with disabilities struggled to excel or keep up with remote learning, there were some silver linings. 

Remote learners with special needs could access various digital tools to help them thrive while learning from home. Those digital tools were often lifelines for families and children in need of extra attention, assistance, and support. 

Now, as families of children with disabilities struggle with the decision of sending their kids back to school, there is the added stress of considering how their kids will cope if those digital tools and sources of support are taken away.

“There’s a lot of general information out there about return-to-school, but often when children have medical problems, families hear that information and think — ‘How does that apply to my kid?'” explained Dr. Carolyn Foster, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, to ABC News. 

How digital accommodations can help protect students with special needs

For many students, learning outside of a traditional school setting was a huge challenge this past year. Adapting to virtual learning, constant screen time, lack of physical interactions, and isolation was difficult. This is especially true for disabled students, who had to find unique ways to meet their own needs as they struggled to keep up academically during the pandemic. It’s important to note that change alone can be difficult for special needs students, so finding ways to help them adjust to a new routine is essential. 

These tools and strategies can include small things like breathing exercises, mindfulness tips, and stress management apps. Still, it can also include digital tools that help students with disabilities manage their learning experiences. Similarly, some of these tools actually turned out to be extremely beneficial for students with special needs.

As special needs students were learning remotely and adjusting to school at home, many of them embraced various apps and software tools that helped them process information and communicate with others. Apps that provided social interaction virtually were key in helping students develop language skills and stay connected; apps that helped children who cannot speak allowed them to communicate using symbols and visual tools. 

Many applications help promote literacy and number skills for kids struggling to learn those lessons. And then, of course, there are digital modifications available on different devices that help students with special needs, such as text to speech (TTS) and speech recognition (dictation) software. These tools help students who cannot communicate in traditional ways, allowing them to work without worrying about spelling, grammar, typing, and other skills that they struggle with. 

Over the past year, with students across the board glued to their devices and relying heavily — if not entirely — on virtual learning, special needs students became reliant on these digital tools and apps to help them cope and maximize their online learning potential. 

Now, as students prepare to return to in-person learning wherever possible, special needs students are at risk of losing some of those digital accommodations they became accustomed to. 

Experts know that any change is challenging for children with disabilities, and learning to adjust to a new normal is exponentially tougher for those kids. Taking away these digital accommodations that have helped them through these unprecedented times could have an even worse impact than the actual home learning and isolation they experienced. 

According to a recent report from the Center for Civil Rights Remedies entitled Disabling Inequity: The Urgent Need for Race-Conscious Resource Remedies, this is not a new dilemma. “Pre-pandemic, we were doing a miserable job,” explains co-author Daniel J. Losen. “And now, kids are returning to school after more trauma, loss, and instructional time. Some have had horrific experiences. And it’s going to be harder for kids with disabilities, or emotional issues and [those who] have trouble regulating their behavior,” he said.

The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that as schools return to in-person learning, school personnel must take extra care to develop a plan to ensure they meet the needs of students with disabilities. That might include digital assistance and other specialized tools to help ease the transition and adjust for lost instructional time and lack of access to other specialized services. 

For families with special needs children, it’s crucial to communicate with your child’s school and create a plan together for how best to accommodate your child as they prepare to return to school. 

Advocate for your children. Be vocal. And be sure to keep a record of your conversations and the Individual Education Plan (IEP) you build. When in need, reach out to experts to help you assess what is best for your kids — pediatricians, social workers, teachers, and therapists are all-important resources.