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Coronavirus Pandemic

Students with disabilities face more pandemic hardships, report finds

School girl having video call with teacher using webcam at home.

Students with disabilities are more likely to experience hardships and challenges of distance learning for 5 million English language learners (ELL) and more than 7 million students who receive special education services, according to a recent survey report published by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

In March, school districts across the country rapidly shifted to distance learning. The US Department of Education (ED) issued guidance to schools in March and May to ensure that they continue to accommodate special education students during remote learning. Still, the guidance acknowledged that services might suffer.

Lack of access to technology and specialized equipment, language barriers, shortened school hours, diverse student needs, and family challenges complicated delivery of instruction for ELL students with disabilities during distance learning, the GAO report authors found. Although school districts employed several strategies to address the challenges of distance learning for these student populations, many problems remained and may have exacerbated preexisting achievement gaps.

The researchers reviewed distance learning plans by selecting 15 school districts with various population densities and serving a high proportion of either ELL or students with disabilities. They then conducted interviews with officials from four school districts that had detailed distance learning plans.

The researchers found that language instruction programs—designed to help ELL attain English proficiency and meet the academic standards expected of all students—were complicated by distance learning challenges.

ELL appears to have been disproportionately affected by lack of access to technology, compromising schools, and educators’ ability to communicate expectations and deliver content to students and their families.

Limited internet connectivity, device access, and data limits were compounded by language barriers that prevented families from understanding how to access web-based instruction.

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 7.1 million (14%) of public school students with disabilities were entitled to special education and related services in 2018-19, including psychological services and speech, occupational, and physical therapy.

Distance learning during the pandemic complicated the delivery of quality education to students with disabilities. The wide range of student needs represented in this population and the correspondingly wide range of services provided made it difficult to provide specialized instruction for every student.

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