When covid-19 began to spread in the United States this past spring, schools closed around the country and most of them stayed that way through the end of the 2019-20 academic year.

Districts had hoped that remote learning could replace in some measure the learning that students would be missing while not in school. In some places it was enough, but in many it wasn’t — especially for students with special needs.

Special education students were stuck at home, most of them without the full array, or any, of the special services they receive in school as required in their federally mandated Individualized Education Programs. And in many districts, remote learning will be the order of the day again when the 2020-21 academic year begins this fall, as covid-19 rates are spiking in many states. Several districts have announced that they are going to all-remote learning for the start of the school year, including Los Angeles, the second-largest in the country.

Allison Wohl’s son, Julian, is a rising fifth-grader in Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, and virtual learning was “a disaster” for him, she said. In this post, she explains what happened to him and sets out exactly what schools need to do now to help students with special needs.

By Allison Wohl

The covid-19 pandemic has laid bare deep inequities in our society, particularly in access to quality education. While some students benefited from the makeshift distance learning program that schools put in place, many more, including students with disabilities, were frustrated and left even further behind.

For our son Julian, who recently finished fourth grade, and who has Down syndrome, distance learning was a disaster.

It turned a happy, independent, and curious child into an anxious and withdrawn one, in large part because of the school’s failure to provide appropriate access to both academic and social-emotional learning or the necessary services and supports and modifications that are essential to his education.

We did not expect the school district to replicate Julian’s Individualized Education Program (which are federally mandated for students with special needs). We did, however, expect them to do more than assemble a daily schedule that met compliance metrics but failed to provide meaningful instruction or access to the curriculum while largely isolating him from his classmates.

Meaningful access must be created and sustained by regular engagement with parents and the broader school community.

For Julian and many students with intellectual and developmental disabilities, meaningful access means providing services and supports so that he can access the general education curriculum and actively participate in the school’s community — a critical step to helping him build a life of belonging in this world.

Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Jack Smith released a video entitled “All In: Meeting the Needs of Special Education Students in a Remote Learning Environment.” He stated on the video: “I hear from each of you as you speak about the power and the critical nature of access. And I think that ought to be the mantra of every educator no matter who you teach, how you teach, where you teach.”

I am not sure how Smith defines “access,” but most of the students with intellectual disabilities in this county are being provided little or no access to the academic instruction or social-emotional learning that lets them belong.

Schools cannot provide access to students by putting together makeshift distance learning plans that are simply compliant with guidelines without thoughtful consideration for how each student’s needs are being met. Access is a mind-set that must apply to every aspect of the school culture.

Real access requires creativity to truly meets students’ needs. Educational standards are important, but teachers must have the flexibility to deal with the individual needs of each of their students.

The current shift in learning represents an opportunity to use technology to increase both access and accessibility. Schools have been trying (and too often failing) to adapt the old educational model to an online environment. Technology can and should open doors, not create additional barriers.

Consider the many accommodations developed for individuals with disabilities that benefit society as a whole: curb cuts, which were designed to remove a barrier for wheelchair users also benefit bikes, strollers, and anything with wheels. If done well, educational accommodations for students with disabilities using technology can have broad benefits for non-disabled students as well as those students who are not able to access a traditional learning environment.

We certainly cannot yet understand all the ways in which technology can make education stronger. But we know that the opportunities are enormous. If educators and school administrators use this unprecedented period to innovate and to go beyond what is required, we can build an educational system that will be more inclusive. With that in mind, educators should pay special attention to the following three areas to ensure that every student is granted access to education:

1. Facilitating social interaction among students

During and before distance learning, some teachers hosted a “lunch bunch” or “social hour” for students with and without disabilities who wanted to participate in an informal online social gathering.

The benefits of these types of experiences, especially for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities, are immeasurable. For students like Julian, who are still building social and conversation skills, this type of interaction is the difference between inclusion and nearly total social isolation.

It both reinforces the skills to participate and creates an informal and safe environment in which to do so. This latter point is critical, since students with intellectual and developmental disabilities are typically not included in social engagements like Zoom or FaceTime chats, birthday parties, and socially distanced play dates. The opportunity to join his friends online without the pressure of a teacher calling on him (knowing that his speech and answers can be very different from his peers), is of profound significance.

2. Using technology to support independence

While schools (particularly at the elementary level), have been hesitant to embrace video as a way of presenting knowledge and engaging students, distance learning presents an opportunity to shift norms. Traditional worksheets and rote learning generally don’t provide meaningful benefits to students with more significant disabilities, particularly those who are nonspeaking or have communication difficulties. In contrast, using tools like iMovie can help build dexterity and motor planning (not to mention, confidence), and can also make use of voice-overs and captioning for those without speech.

By employing these kinds of creative tools, students build organization, sequencing, editing, decision-making, and self-determination skills that help empower them and allow them to demonstrate their ability to learn, rather than be frustrated by structures that exclude them or how they think and process.

My colleague and friend Jennifer White, of the organization Able Opportunities, has pioneered this kind of educational and employment support for Americans with the most significant disabilities. In the school environment, these tools can bring students together and allow them to demonstrate their knowledge and their interests, instead of forcing them to rely on others to speak for them.

3. Small-group instruction

My son’s special education model is built on small-group instruction for reading and math as well as physical, speech, and occupational therapy. With classroom sizes hovering near 30, many students (not just students with disabilities) are overwhelmed and distracted in large classrooms. Small groups offer not only social inclusion but also access to curriculum at an individualized pace. Online learning offers a real opportunity here, because of the agility that such an environment provides. These groups can be facilitated by special educators or general education teachers. Tools for breakout groups and paraprofessional support are provided within tools like Zoom.

Technology is often lumped and negatively associated with entertainment because it seems passive. But it can be so much more. Schools must use this time, as we prepare for so many unknowns, to shift their thinking and to practice, develop, and pilot innovative ways of making technology an active means to providing meaningful access for students with significant disabilities, for whom access itself is most often the most stubborn barrier.

To do this will require creativity, agility, and flexibility, three concepts that have generally not been the strong suit of school systems. We are in unprecedented times, which require an unprecedented response. The opportunities are too great, and the risks too catastrophic to fail to act.