The Intersection

Supporting Students with Disabilities

August 6, 2021

Federal Special Education Requirements

The cornerstone of U.S. education policy is that all students deserve access to a high-quality education. Students identified as having a disability require additional services and supports that go beyond what the general education model typically provides. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), as well as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, all schools receiving federal funding are required to provide specialized instruction, support, and accommodations as needed to ensure all students have access to a free and appropriate public education. Currently, an estimated seven million students – 14 percent of our nation’s student population – are served under IDEA, with an additional 2 percent of students served under Section 504.

The Challenge

Students may require services and supports due to a variety of disabilities, including physical disabilities and health needs (e.g., cerebral palsy, epilepsy) as well as learning, psychological, and emotional disabilities (e.g., autism, learning disabilities). Special education can include direct services such as specialized reading instruction and occupational therapy, as well as accommodations and modifications to the learning environment, such as use of text-to-speech software or use of visual images to support written content. These guaranteed services and/or accommodations are outlined a students Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 Plan. As was true among typically developing students during the pandemic, students with disabilities experienced wide-ranging impacts during remote learning, with some students performing better while others struggled and fell drastically behind.

Students with disabilities typically receive services in-person, but due to the disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic, schools often had to pivot to remote instruction and services. While some students were able to access these services via remote learning, other services (e.g., physical therapy, occupational therapy, etc.) that require hands-on support from specialized instructional support personnel were difficult for schools to provide. Many families voiced concerns about the loss of services and the impact it has had on their children’s growth and learning, and sought legal action to remedy the service deficit. Some accommodations and modifications to academic materials and instruction can still be provided in a remote learning environment, though there have been barriers to access for students with physical disabilities who require specific devices or software (e.g., switches, text-to-speech software) in order to access instructional content and materials.

For the schools that were able to get students with disabilities back into the classroom, teachers found it easier to give students what they needed. Parents also felt that in-person instruction was making a difference in their child’s academic progress. However, many students did not return to in-person instruction due to health concerns or because of scheduling or transportation limitations. As the 2021-2022 school year begins, it will be imperative that schools prepare to address the needs of students with disabilities who have likely been significantly impacted by the pandemic disruptions.

Significant, Unique Learning Loss During the Pandemic

New research examining academic achievement and growth of students with and without disabilities in grades K-4 provides new insight into how differential growth during school years and summers may shape disparities. A new report from the assessment group NWEA underscores two findings that could inform how schools support children with disabilities going forward. Students receiving services and supports often make more academic growth during a single school year than their typically developing peers but are at substantially higher risk of losing ground during summer break. If students with disabilities fell behind during the pandemic the same way they do between school years, they are particularly vulnerable to what researchers call the COVID Slide. Currently quanititative data on this phenomenon is limited; however, teacher feedback provides valuable qualitative insight into the ongoing struggle to meet the needs of students with disabilities.

According to a new nationally representative survey, two-thirds of teachers who work with students with disabilities felt that they were less able to meet the requirements of students’ individualized education plans and provide the support that their students needed when they were teaching remotely. A large majority of teachers in in-person, hybrid, and fully remote schools reported they were supporting students with disabilities through individual and small-group instruction at least once a week. But while 51 percent of in-person teachers reported their special education students completed nearly all their assignments, only 29 percent of remote teachers and 32 percent of hybrid teachers said the same. Additionally, nationwide, students with disabilities still are not necessarily prioritized for in-person learning as schools return to school, even as many schools prepare to reopen. With this new research in mind, it is important that school districts prioritize in-person instruction for students with disabilities. Teachers should be supported and prepared to provide targeted, intensive instruction for students with disabilities when they return to school in the fall.

Federal Funding Relief on the Horizon

In July 2021, the U.S. Department of Education released more than three billion dollars in American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds to states to support infants, toddlers, children, and youth with disabilities. The new funding will help aid more than 7.9 million infants, toddlers, and students served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and adds to the ARP Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief allocation of $122 billion in state funding for K-12 schools, which the department announced in March 2021. The federal funds will help states and schools in providing interventions and services to children with disabilities, especially those who had challenges in receiving the services outlined in their IEP or 504 plans. In addition to releasing the funds, the U.S. Department of Education released a fact sheet describing how IDEA funds within ARP can be used by states to support infants, toddlers, children, and youth with disabilities. State leaders should strategically allocate ARP funding to support students and reform state policies. It will be important to leverage this funding to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on lost instructional time, service interruption, and student wellbeing.


Policy Considerations

The following recommendations focus on four key areas to address the needs of students with disabilities this upcoming school year.

Increase access to high-quality, accessible, and inclusive instruction

Due to school closures and lost instructional time, many students with disabilities have struggled to make progress on their academic goals and have not had access to other services to which they are entitled. It will be critical for schools to prioritize a return to in-person instruction for students with disabilities this school year. States and districts can invest their federal funds in developing recovery plans that outline how to address learning loss and developmental setbacks for students with disabilities. Additionally, revisiting “normal” instructional schedules will be important for maximizing learning time and providing more time for personalized or supplemental instruction for this demographic of students.

Develop effective progress monitoring & accurate evaluations for specialized instruction

Many schools face a backlog of evaluations and reevaluations for students with disabilities as school closures and virtual environments made evaluations difficult. Additionally, the myriad challenges the pandemic generated for students could lead to increased initial referrals for special education at the return of school. To address the existing and growing needs of students with disabilities, states and districts should consider increasing capacity for districts to conduct comprehensive evaluations for special education to allow for timely and effective assessment as mandated under the IDEA. Districts can develop partnerships with private evaluators and colleges or universities, who can help increase the capacity to complete the backlog of evaluations in the short term, and provide professional development and expertise to special educators, school psychologists, and others within the district who will continue conducting evaluations in the long term.

Develop inclusive and culturally responsive social-emotional learning

The COVID-19 pandemic had a significant impact on students’ social and emotional learning and development. To help students emerge stronger and more prepared for school and life, it is essential that educators work to address the social and emotional needs of students with disabilities. States and districts should partner with community mental health organizations to provide supplemental supports to or provide professional development for educators and staff. Additionally, districts should invest in inclusive, restorative, and educative approaches to school discipline practice and policy by providing opportunities for trauma-informed approaches to build strong conditions for learning.

Promote meaningful family support and engagement

Throughout the pandemic, many schools and districts invested more time and resources to equip families and caregivers with information and knowledge to support their students at home. As schools reopen, family engagement must continue. In addition to providing families with tools and resources to help children at home, schools should shoe families how curricula and instructional strategies are being adjusted to address instructional loss. States and districts can invest funds by developing strategies for inclusive communication with families. This means ensuring that communication and information to families is accessible to all, including those who speak a language other than English at home, those who do not have reliable access to computers or broadband, and those with limited educational backgrounds. Communication should encourage input from families and should offer pathways for students and families to ask for and receive help from well-trained support personnel.

Additional Resources

The US Department of Education has issued several fact sheets and FAQs to guide states and districts as they work to ensure that, in addition to students’ health and safety, their civil rights are maintained as well.

U.S. Department of Education Resources

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