By Frank Long, MS, Editorial Director

The critical occupational and physical therapy children get at school has become scarce during the pandemic and parents can’t provide comparable services themselves. Even the kids know remote special education is failing. So what will the education system do about it?

Two Fears

The solution for special education during the COVID-19 pandemic is not an easy one to find. The task requires developing a way to provide special education students a learning experience that keeps them moving forward while keeping them safe from possible infection by the novel coronavirus.

As experts search for a suitable solution, a two-pronged problem becomes visible: the loss of in-class instruction and lack of access to school-based therapy.

The first problem deals a blow to the benefits of regular therapeutic activity and social interaction with peers. That is complicated by the fact that some children simply learn better in a live classroom environment and lack the necessary self-direction for home-based learning.

Regression Realities

The second problem is more insidious and has long-term implications: the possibility of regression.

Research published in The School Psychologist Vol. 73 No. 1 Spring 2019 shows that special education students are vulnerable to regression during vacation periods and that they regress less academically when they received extended school year services.

If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic is substantively having the effect of a vacation period nearly twice the length of the traditional summer break.

The effect of regression on learning and behavior caused by closing down classrooms is illustrated by the case of 10-year-old Alexa, a child on the autism spectrum who attends school in Wailuku, Hawaii. Alexa’s mother, Vanessa Ince, describes the regression she has observed in her daughter in a July 23 article published by NPR:

“Alexis regressed so severely. She was previously, I would say, 95% potty trained, and she started wetting herself.” She also regressed in other areas, her mother says: She went back to crawling and stopped trying to use her communication device.

—From the NPR article “Families Of Children With Special Needs Are Suing In Several States. Here’s Why.”

Similar concern about regression is echoed by Laura LeBrun Hatcher, mother of 14-year-old Simon, who is affected by hydrocephalus, epilepsy, and is on the autism spectrum. In an article published by Vox, Hatcher emphasizes how the exodus from the classroom left Simon without the structure and one-to-one support that keeps him on task with learning.

“For kids like Simon who really do need that level of support, we’re not just worried about him not moving forward, we’re worried about his regression.”

— Laura LeBrun Hatcher, mother of 14-year-old Simon

Special Ed is a Right (?)

Special education students who have complex medical needs have a heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 in a classroom setting. Should the members of this population become ill, the outlook for their recovery lags well behind what would be expected of their peers who are not affected by disabilities. Keeping this population out of environments where exposure to the virus is likely makes sense from a public health perspective, yet those same students have the most to lose when removed from classroom settings. The dilemma persists.

So far neither school administrators, therapists, or government agencies have found a strategy that offers the benefits of on-site classroom instruction while protecting students and educators from the spread of COVID-19. On the other hand, what seems to become clear as time passes is that some of the stakeholders in this matter see special education as a civil right rather than simply a “nice to have.”

Wanda Blanchett, dean of the education school at Rutgers University, New Jersey, sums the feelings of special education advocates this way in an interview with NPR:

Special education has historically been a “struggle” with its roots in the civil rights movement. To this day, Black and brown students tend to be overrepresented in certain kinds of special education, meaning this struggle intersects with issues of race, class and English-speaking status.

—Wanda Blanchett in NPR

Students and Parents See Inequity

A voice of concern among the students themselves belongs to 14-year-old Alexander Campbell, a special education student on the autism spectrum who attends a public high school in rural Virginia. Campbell tells NPR that even under normal circumstances the services special education students receive is not equitable with those of regular students.

“And now that it’s in the pandemic, it’s been even worse, to the point where the school systems are trying to convince students and parents not even to receive services at all,” Campbell tells NPR.

As a result some parents, such as Vanessa Ince in Wailuku, Hawaii, reportedly have filed lawsuits against school districts in an attempt to get them to pay for services for their children that would more closely resemble their previous classroom experience. The call for a nationwide class action lawsuit seems to be gathering steam, but whether it has merit remains to be seen.

Julie Fisher Mead, PhD, professor and associate dean for education at University of Wisconsin-Madison, Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis, makes this observation:

“What often becomes difficult is that judges look at this and say, ‘Wait a minute. Kids with disabilities are so different, I’m reluctant to certify this as a class action because I’m not confident that we could come up with a remedy that satisfies everybody’s needs.’ “

— Julie Fisher Mead, in NPR

With many school years set to begin within a matter of days, this problem can hardly wait to be settled in court. Nonetheless, it is crucial that educators and their attorneys strive for a solution. The COVID-19 pandemic may very well end before that solution is uncovered, but what can be learned from the current crisis certainly will benefit the students and teachers caught in the next one.

Get perspectives from all sides of this debate in the NPR article Families Of Children With Special Needs Are Suing In Several States. Here’s Why.