Workbooks sent home to parents are used as teaching aids for students learning remotely. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

When the coronavirus pandemic first hit, the U.S. Department of Education stressed that all public schools that would be providing virtual or online education during the pandemic must also continue to serve their students with disabilities. However, these services are not necessarily transferable to distance learning nor is in-person learning easily delivered due to social distancing. When we consider the learning loss students are experiencing due to the move to virtual learning during the pandemic, we must take into account the additional challenges faced by special education students, especially those who are low-income students of color. 

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which was passed in 1975, school districts are required to provide free appropriate public education to children with disabilities in the least restrictive environment. Disabled children are legally entitled to free educational services that are tailored to their individual needs, from physical therapy to speech therapy to an in-class aide or assistant. But this one-to-one support simply cannot be provided at a distance. Home confinement, for example, limits certain kinds of professional contacts such as physical or occupational therapists.

Moreover, some online learning practices inherently present barriers to persons with disabilities. Uncaptioned videos are not accessible to students who are deaf, content presented with graphic images only is not accessible to individuals who are blind, disorganized content cluttered on a page creates barriers to some students with learning disabilities and attention deficits, and web pages that require using a mouse are inaccessible to those who cannot operate one.

A survey released at the end of May by the advocacy group ParentsTogether, found that 40% of children in special education hadn’t received any support at all, only 20% received all the services they were entitled to receive, and over a third were doing little to no remote learning, compared with 17% of their general education peers. As a result of the disruption in services, many parents have reported their children had regressed significantly, losing milestones and abilities they had worked for months or years to achieve.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, seven million children ages 3 to 21, or 14% of all public school students, receive special education services. Low-income families are particularly dependent upon these services, as low-income students and students of color are disproportionately represented in the special education community.

The Texas Education Agency for years illegally led schools to deny therapy, tutoring, and counseling to children with disabilities by setting an arbitrary target of 8.5% of enrollment as the maximum percentage of students who would receive special education services, and then penalizing districts for exceeding that benchmark. State and national averages of students receiving such services had been around 12%; the percentage of students receiving special education services in Texas dropped from 11.6% in 2004 to 8.6% in 2016. As a direct result of this policy, school districts violated federal laws requiring schools to serve all students with disabilities.

Those students who lost special education services were 52% less likely to graduate high school and 38% less likely to enroll in college as a result of this policy. And it was especially harmful for students of color and students from low-income families. They were likely to lose their special education status, and when they did, they saw even steeper declines in graduation and college enrollment, suggesting that affluent families or better-funded districts were able to compensate for the loss of special education services in ways that others were not.

San Antonio is one of the nation’s most economically segregated cities, with its worst poverty, unemployment, and educational outcomes concentrated in four zip codes. While San Antonio is more racially integrated than other cities in the U.S., poverty is segregated and concentrated in majority Hispanic and Black communities. Because schools, as a social service, are funded based upon geography, educational services in San Antonio’s inner-city neighborhoods – abandoned by white families who took their accumulated wealth to the urban fringe – have languished.

It was called “the homework gap” before the pandemic, when teachers would assign homework that required internet access and students did not have such access. But as the pandemic forced many schools to shift to remote learning, disconnected students missed more than homework. This digital divide affects a disproportionately high percentage of Black, Latino, and Native American households. One in three Black, Latino, and Native American students lacks a broadband connection, compared to one in five white students.

Given the digital divide, San Antonio’s economic segregation, the pandemic-precipitated shift to virtual learning, and federal regulators’ findings that years of pressure from state officials to enroll fewer students in special education have created a culture of noncompliance with federal law, it’s clear that San Antonio’s low-income special needs students of color are not receiving their legally entitled educational services. What remains unclear is how school districts can provide these services during these uncertain times.

The pandemic upended almost every facet of traditional schooling, including the additional and intensive in-person supports that many children with disabilities need on a daily basis. And while in-person supports might be on pause, requirements for districts to provide these services are not.

Under IDEA, students with disabilities are entitled to compensatory services once the school year begins, even if in-person schooling hasn’t officially resumed. School districts are required to provide specific services and meet particular goals within a certain period to any child deemed eligible for special education services, and parents of special needs students have a right to sue their school districts if their children fail to make progress. Consequently, there is the ever-present fear of lawsuits.

In July 2020, groups representing school administrators, such as the School Superintendents Association, called upon Congress to grant them liability protections related to their obligations under IDEA as they navigate approaches to special education during the pandemic. Then Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos requested no “waiver authority for any of the core tenets of the IDEA.”

Many school districts want to do the right thing for students with disabilities, but don’t have the necessary funds to do so. In some cases where districts do have the funds, children with disabilities are back at school five days a week while their peers do hybrid or remote learning. Special needs children may be at heightened risks for complications from COVID-19, thus the decision of whether to send their children back to school is complicated for parents of medically fragile children. Parents and educators would be concerned that if it’s not safe for all students to return to school, then it also would not be safe for children with disabilities to do so.

Clearly, it is expressly challenging to know how best to educate and provide services to special education students during the pandemic to ensure their academic progress and success, but the problem can’t be ignored.

In an upcoming commentary, Johnson will dive into possible solutions to the challenges school districts are facing.

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David E. Johnson

David E. Johnson, Ed.D. is a career-long, certificated educator and the owner-principal of TransformEd Consulting. He is a social justice advocate whose mission is to ensure educational opportunities are...