The pandemic’s full impact on students with disabilities remains a mystery

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted education for all students, but those with disabilities have been disproportionately impacted according to new research from the Center on Reinventing Public Education.

The findings come from a three-part series of reports from the center that also explore the pandemic’s effects on student academic achievement and social-emotional and mental health. This latest report includes input from a panel of seven experts in educating students with disabilities from the Sacramento County Office of Education, RAND Corporation and Indiana University Bloomington.

Among key topics of discussion was the challenge students with disabilities faced in a distance learning environment — especially early on, when local educational agencies struggled to adapt online platforms to ensure accessibility by students with a range of disabilities.

“While nearly all students have struggled to keep pace in 2020 and 2021, those who rely on specialized supports during ordinary times were doubly disadvantaged,” wrote the study’s authors, the Center for Learner Equity executive director and co-founder Lauren Morando-Rhim and program specialist Sumeyra Ekin. “Prolonged school closures, for example, separated many students with disabilities from the hands-on instructional supports and physical or cognitive therapies set forth by their Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).”

Moving forward, part of the problem will be what is unknown about the experience of SWDs. As researchers noted, a review of nearly 400 research reports, news stories and case studies about education and the pandemic published since March 2020 provided very little national data specific to students with disabilities.

Even after expanding the search to include credible analyses published by states, districts, and established research organizations, less than 20 percent of the literature reviewed made references to the experiences or outcomes of students with disabilities. And among those that did, few differentiated data by disability category or the level of service provided.

What is known, what remains unknown

Many SWDs did not receive the same quantity or quality of specialized therapies they received before the pandemic, largely due to the challenges of remote instruction. This was especially true as districts and counties tried to meet the needs of students who require more supports, including students with complex communication and learning disabilities. As a result, these students also experienced higher rates of absenteeism, incomplete assignments and course failures.

Not all remote learning experiences were negative, however. Some students with disabilities — particularly those with emotional and attention issues — actually thrived in online environments that intentionally fostered focused, individualized learning experiences. And the increased use of and access to technology helped connect families to school staff, allowing them to become more involved in IEP meetings. Additionally, research noted that the challenges of the pandemic “fueled rapid development of positive, meaningful changes in service planning in some states,” such as in California, “where, a new law requires all IEPs to specify how services will be provided under emergency conditions, such as when a student cannot physically attend school for more than 10 consecutive days.”

What remains unclear is the true scope of the impacts of service interruptions in terms of students’ progress, including regression in basic skills among students with intensive needs, as well as the effects on the social-emotional development of students with disabilities, according to the report.

“Understanding how the pandemic has affected the education and support services of students with disabilities is critical to informing policy and practice. In the current absence of data, a growing number of due-process complaints and investigations by the U.S. Department of Education confirm anecdotal reports that these students have not consistently been provided the critical supports and services central to their ability to learn,” researchers wrote. “We see an urgent research agenda to gain a detailed understanding of service interruptions and the pandemic’s impact on students with disabilities. Without nuanced details, we cannot effectively design and implement strategies to address deficits and accelerate learning.”