How COVID-19 Has Affected Special Education Students

Of all K-12 students, those with special needs are especially hard hit by the pandemic, say Tufts special education experts

The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered many changes in K-12 education—some major, like learning remotely from home, and some minor, like sitting farther apart on the school bus. While most students have had routines interrupted, the children perhaps most affected by that disruption are special education students.

“Generally speaking, in special education, one of the strategies that works the best is a structured routine—and that’s gone,” said Leandra Elion, a lecturer in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development. It’s now parents who must establish that routine, “and there is no prescription for what that looks like in a COVID-19 world.”

As a result, she said, parents of special needs children have struggled through a trial-and-error process to find what works—and what doesn’t—to encourage their children to engage with virtual education and/or in-person education that looks much different than it did before COVID-19.

“It’s another hat for parents to wear. They have become the school, the teachers, the lunch monitors, the school nurse, the recess monitor, and now they’re also becoming the researcher as they try out different routines,” said Elion. “I think having to play these many different roles has been incredibly stressful for parents.”

How to access the various services that their children are entitled to is the most common question parents pose to Melinda Macht-Greenberg, a clinical, developmental, and school psychologist, and lecturer at Eliot-Pearson. She teaches courses on conducting assessments of children’s mental health and educational needs.

“A lot of the questions that parents and guardians have in special education are, ‘How do I get my child what they need, what am I entitled to, and what am I allowed to ask for?’” said Macht-Greenberg. “Parents of special needs children have been consistently and completely overwhelmed. For working parents, juggling the school from home and work from home balance is very, very difficult.”

Special education covers a range of needs, from children who could use a little help with reading to children with visual or hearing impairments, to children with multiple disabilities. Special education students have Individual Education Plans, or IEPs, which are legal contracts between schools and parents that set goals for the child and outline the special education services to be provided.

Back in the spring when schools closed due to COVID-19, the federal government declared that there would be no special education waivers, which meant “everything within the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)—all timelines, services, and regulations—remained in force. But that was extremely difficult for schools to implement,” Macht-Greenberg said.

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (formerly the Department of Education) said schools could provide a modification to the IEP in the form of a remote learning program, which was to be submitted in writing to families. However, unlike the IEP, the remote learning plan did not require any kind of sign-off from parents.

“That really led to this whole cascading nightmare where many school districts felt they didn’t need to provide everything if they couldn’t do it in person, and they didn’t need to provide services for the same amount of time or in the same way,” said Macht-Greenberg. “And unfortunately, many schools provided very little in terms of special education. Some parents didn’t know that timelines for special education evaluations and meetings were still in effect, yet schools were postponing them.”

If a child has an IEP, then by law it is rewritten each year, and the child must be reevaluated every three years to determine whether they’re still eligible for special education. Also, if a student is new to the special education system, the school must evaluate the child within 30 school days, and after another 15 days meet with the child’s family. But during the COVID-19 quarantine in the spring, schools did little or no testing, Macht-Greenberg said.

“Now there’s a tremendous backlog, not only because there are meetings and evaluations that are supposed to be done now, but because there are hundreds of kids who were not evaluated this past spring that need to be evaluated for special education services,” she said.

Elion said she understands that schools are overwhelmed as they adapt to virtual learning and enhance safety measures inside school buildings to comply with COVID-19 guidelines. But she said that’s no excuse to deny a child’s right to free and appropriate public education. It’s the underpinning of all special education laws in the U.S., and “for a child with special needs in particular, it’s incumbent upon the IEP team, which includes the school district and the parents, to figure out what the appropriate education is,” said Elion.

Families are entitled to compensatory services for special education services that were not provided in the spring or summer, she said. For example, if an IEP stipulates that a child see a speech and language pathologist three times a week for 30 minutes, but the school did not schedule the appointments, then the family should receive compensatory services from the school district. However, Macht-Greenberg said, most schools are still working out details as far as how to make up for what has been lost.

Elion said that special education assessments are starting to take place remotely, but that’s hardly a comfort for parents. Standardized assessments weren’t designed and normed for remote delivery and IEP teams are now relying, at least partially, on data gathered by parents to inform decisions.

“It’s a double-edged sword. This is giving parents a much bigger voice, but it’s giving them another job,” said Elion. “It’s tough for all parents right now, but it’s even tougher for parents of children with special needs.”

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