Educational Implications of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Students with Disabilities in Pennsylvania

Proactively Preparing for Returning Students

The COVID-19 pandemic is impacting special education service delivery in Pennsylvania and beyond. However, there are steps parents, educators, schools, and policymakers can take to help mitigate the impact.

How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting special education service delivery?

Pennsylvania is among the 32 states, 3 U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia to have closed its schools for the rest of the 2019-2020 academic year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In Pennsylvania alone, these closures have impacted over 3,000 public schools and affected more than 1.7 million students. This includes 4 out of every 25 students currently receiving special education and related services in Pennsylvania.

The pandemic’s fallout is likely to be severe and long lasting. Early reports suggest that students may re-enter school in the fall of 2020 almost a full year behind academically. The timing of the pandemic is especially worrisome since it coincides with the “ summer slide,” or the loss of learning that occurs during the summer months. This loss will disproportionately affect some student populations, including those from less-resourced households who lack access to online learning technologies or whose parents have non-standard work schedules that limit their ability to participate in homeschooling. Children who are food insecure or in volatile home environments are likely to be experiencing particular hardships.

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 2004), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (1973), and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990), Pennsylvania schools are legally required to provide a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) to students with disabilities, supplemented with accommodations to support their learning. This is often done through an Individualized Education Program (IEP), a legal contract between the student, their family, and the school that describes the student’s needs, goals, and the supports that the school will provide to ensure the student receives a FAPE.

Previously, there were no legal mandates for whether a school was required to continue providing such services to students with disabilities in the case of extended school closures due to exceptional circumstances. Although some states have required families to sign waivers of their legal rights in order to receive IEP-related services, the U.S. Department of Education (DoE) recently declined to seek congressional waivers releasing states from their FAPE requirements under IDEA, stating that “learning must continue for all students during the COVID-19 national emergency.” This is aligned with the DoE’s earlier guidance suggesting that if schools continue to provide educational services to the general population of students, they should be providing equal access to special education services in accordance with the student’s IEP. This includes instances in which a student with a disability contracts COVID-19 or are unable to resume schooling as mandated by a physician due to increased susceptibility to COVID-19. Medical absences lasting longer than 10 consecutive days will require a review of the child’s IEP and an update regarding placement, services, and IEP goals.

Opportunities: What does research suggest that parents, educators, schools, and policymakers should do to best help students with disabilities during COVID-19 school closures?

Due to the use of remote learning activities, special education supports and services as traditionally delivered by schools may be dramatically altered or disrupted. If the remote-learning activities are not appropriately accessible, students with disabilities may be especially impacted and may return to school following the pandemic having experienced a disproportionate loss of learning relative to their classmates. There are several actions that parents, educators, schools, and policymakers can take at this time:


- According to the U.S. DoE guidelines, parents should contact their child’s IEP team to create a contingency plan for the coming months including summer. This plan should ensure that current academic skills are maintained as well as outline how and where distance learning will occur (whether in the home or in an alternative location, using curriculum-based virtual instruction, telephone calls, or other instructional activities).

- Many children with disabilities struggle with executive function skills (e.g., working memory, organization, planning, and self-regulation), including students with speech or language impairments, learning disabilities, Autism spectrum disorder, and emotional or behavioral disorders like ADHD. To support students with disabilities, consistent household routines and schedules should be set to maintain a sense of normalcy and to establish clear expectations for the day (for example, beginning each day with a to-do checklist, setting a designated study time and space, and keeping a clearly visible master calendar). For children with attention difficulties, tasks can also be broken into smaller or quicker sub-units and children can take more frequent breaks (for example, 20 minutes of work followed by a 10-minute break).

- Parents can use strategies to help their students master difficult ideas and check their knowledge. For instance:

  • Students with disabilities benefit from explicit instruction, which includes setting learning goals, modeling with correct and incorrect examples, providing multiple opportunities for practice, and providing immediate feedback about what exactly the student did well and how they might improve.
  • Use graphic organizers (for example, have students visually or graphically map out the relation between concepts), or have their students teach the lesson back to parents in order to demonstrate knowledge (referred to as the protégé effect).
  • Parents can also model their own thinking process (“First I look for key words in the text…”) and ask students to talk through their own thinking when they get stuck in order to help build self-regulation strategies and identify breakdowns in understanding.
  • Parents can explore options for additional tutoring, which may be provided at low cost or free of cost in some circumstances.

- Parents should ensure that they prioritize their own self-care in order to maximize their emotional availability to their children and families.

- Lastly, parents are often the primary advocate for and expert about their children. Despite its challenges, online learning provides a unique opportunity for a flexible learning environment. Parents should be conscientious of and adaptive to the day-to-day virtual learning capacities of their child during the COVID-19 pandemic, which may fluctuate depending on a multitude of factors.


- General education teachers who instruct students with disabilities should continue to work collaboratively and in close coordination with special education teachers to develop a scope and sequence of skills to be taught that align with both the classroom’s curriculum and the student’s IEP goals. For example:

  • General education teachers should be sharing lesson plans or weekly summaries of activities with special educators. This helps establish common language, routines, and lesson adaption so that instruction aligns with individual accommodations and IEP goals.
  • Make sure that materials, technology, and curricula are accessible. For instance, students who are visually impaired rely on accessible web pages and content, such as screen readers or magnifiers and altered colors, text, and formatting. Educators should be aware of and actively searching for ways to mitigate the problems with internet connectivity or automatic captioning services that can present substantial barriers to communication and teaching during this time.

- Students’ learning opportunities may vary on a daily or weekly basis depending on a multitude of factors (for example, individual factors, internet connectivity, parental support, food insecurity, etc.). Teachers should consider more informal, frequent, and low-stakes assessments to evaluate what students know (for example, on a weekly basis) instead of larger, comprehensive, and infrequent examinations. Teachers can then adjust curricular pace and planning accordingly.

- This ongoing progress monitoring can then be used to provide data-based decisions as to whether the student needs summer tutoring or other amendments to the IEP. Summer tutoring, including tutoring by parents, has proven effective for disadvantaged students and students with or at risk for disabilities in preventing or reducing summer slide. Teachers should work closely with parents to design and implement effective tutoring plans.


- Schools need to start preparing now for the fact that all students with disabilities will need more support after schools are reopened. The U.S. DoE’s guidelines specify that if a child with a disability does not receive formal education during a school closure, the student’s IEP team must make a determination regarding what additional or compensatory supports will be required to meet the student’s IEP goals upon their return. This may be especially true for students who have more severe disabilities, as they might need additional compensatory services as soon as possible. There are several key ways that schools might provide this additional support:

  • IEPs are required to be reviewed at least annually. Schools should make the effort to review the IEPs for enrolled students with disabilities as close to the start of the 2020-2021 school year as possible.
  • Although testing and assessment typically only occur during a re-evaluation IEP meeting (which are held every 36 months), schools may want to consider assessing all students with disabilities to identify the extent to which an interruption in services disrupted the student's progress toward their goals. Schools can then adjust these IEPs based on how the student’s existing needs may have interacted with the COVID-19 school closures. IEP teams should be prepared to develop culturally and linguistically responsive IEPs in order to be responsive to diverse learners.
  • While summative data is important for guiding curricula and IEPs, it should be coupled with attention to and emphasis on mental and emotional health. Students with disabilities may be disproportionately impacted behaviorally or emotionally by COVID-19 given disruptions to needed therapies or supports. Schools should work with parents to support students’ mental and emotional health. Schools can also hire or redistribute qualified staff to support the transition back to school both academically and emotionally for students with disabilities. Some administrators are anticipating smaller class sizes to tend to those students who are behind academically, and hiring more school counselors and nurses to meet student mental health needs.
  • Schools and parents often face barriers to communication regarding students with disabilities, which may be exacerbated during this unprecedented time. Schools should solicit concerns from parents and community members about the child’s development, particularly those from marginalized communities. Both parents and schools should work together with as much transparency, flexibility, and understanding as possible.


- Addressing the educational needs of students with disabilities during and following the pandemic is going to require a considerable investment of time and resources from schools. Education costs are generally expected to increase dramatically next year due to the COVID-19 crisis, even though many states had already passed their FY 2020 budgets before schools closed. Pennsylvania has set aside up to $5 million in state funding for equity grants for schools, which will be prioritized for schools with the highest proportion of students lacking access to educational resources. A significant portion of any COVID-19 emergency funding should go toward meeting the needs of students with disabilities.

- When schools reopen, it may be harder to identify whether students have disabilities or experienced disruptions to learning due to COVID-19. Research suggests that districts often rely on educators at earlier grade levels to identify students with disabilities and create IEPs. Policymakers may want to consider funneling immediate resources into the Child Find mandate of IDEA, which requires school districts to identify, locate, and evaluate children with potential disabilities. This may be particularly necessary for students who are racial or ethnic minorities or who are experiencing economic insecurity. These students are more likely to be exposed to the risk factors for disabilities and to experience academic difficulties but yet less likely to be identified as having disabilities while attending schools. These disparities may be exacerbated following the disruptions to schooling during this global pandemic.

Additional ideas for parents, educators, and policymakers can be found here, here, here, and here.

We recognize that these recommendations, although crucial to the success of students with disabilities, may be complicated to implement. Implementing these recommendations may need to occur in several phases depending on the school and the child (i.e., first an IEP review, followed by additional testing according to the parent’s specific concerns and the child’s pre-identified needs). Schools may want to consider beginning this process prior to the first day of classes in September, proactively preparing for their returning students with disabilities. If teachers and schools are ahead of the curve for students with disabilities, whose needs are legally protected in a way that is not often the case for students without disabilities, this leaves the schools more able to adapt to the general education population who also experienced COVID-19-related learning disruptions.

Article Topics: special education, Pennsylvania, children
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