Students with Disabilities During the Quarantine: How Can We Help

15% of the global population experiences disabilities, while around 150 million people have significant restrictions. So how do students with disabilities should cope with the Covid-19 quarantine? Let’s discuss this in today’s article.

The past few weeks were a rather rough period for education leaders and governments across the US and abroad because they had to decide whether to close schools and universities, for how long, how to organize the educational process, and of course, how these closures will influence students with disabilities.

Key Principles for Education Leaders

Once the World Health Organization has declared Covid-19 a pandemic, it became obvious that the world is never going to be the same again. Educators had to come with an urgent plan on how to deal with school and college closures, and how to minimize the harm the quarantine may have on the learning process. 

When elaborating a study plan for students with disabilities, the following key features should be considered:

  • IDEA states that all students must have free access to public education during the quarantine;
  • Schools and colleges should come up with Individual Education Programs (IEP) before changing the placements of students. This means shifting to a virtual or independent study;
  • Schools and colleges that close or move to another instruction must provide necessary devices and access for every student; provide free Internet access if the families are not able to pay themselves; make sure that students have necessary assistive technologies; provide all the required services at home;
  • All the modifications and accommodations under the 504 Section should still be provided;
  • During the lockdown, school and college staff must work tightly with students and their families to create the most suitable education environment. 

The Emerging Crisis

There are hundreds of millions of students across the US, and all of them are forced to stay at home during the quarantine. If the virus continues, more and more schoolers will be forced to remain locked without proper access to education.

Even though Covid-19 is not dangerous to people of a younger age, many children may contract the virus and carry it back home to more vulnerable people. Adults at schools, risk contacting Covid-19 and bringing it further. Thus, closing schools is one of the ways to stop the spread of the deadly virus.

However, this decision has its own risks. Students, especially with disabilities, suffer from a broken schedule, lost interaction with peers and adults, and even a shortage of food without access to school meals. Many parents or guardians can’t stay at home to take care of their children because they are afraid to lose jobs. 

Thus, most schools and colleges are thinking of the ways of moving the curriculum online. And the biggest problem is the lack of time for preparation – not many establishments have enough resources for a normal transition to online education. But it’s difficult to come up with solutions, which would meet the needs of all students, especially those with disabilities. 

How to Help Disabled Students

Students with disabilities have the same rights as other students, which is stated in the IDEA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the ADA. These laws give disabled students the right to access special education, which adjusts to their needs and gives necessary modifications and accommodations.

Individualized Education Programs and Section 504 plans define the needs of every student and act as a law for the state and schools to implement those services and programs. But these are only words: what happens when the crisis strikes and schools and colleges can’t operate in their normal way? Luckily, there are several precedents, which allow dealing with these closures.

The most recent example is the H1N1 outbreak in 2009, even though it was rather limited in terms of geography. Another precedent is Hurricane Katrina, which caused school closures. But we are witnessing a completely new situation, where billions of people worldwide are self-isolating.

While governments and agencies are trying to come up with the best solution for multiple categories of citizens, they shouldn’t forget about students with disabilities. Luckily, the IDEA is compulsory, and schools, as well as colleges, are obliged to follow the requirements.

On March 12, 2020, the US Department of Education has released guidance for the current crisis. One of the issues is school closures and their influence on students. Below we have cited the March 12 guidance:

Section 504 of the IDEA and the ADA Title II don’t address the situation when all schools and colleges are closed for a long period of time (more than ten days) because of the urgent nature such as disease outbreak.

If the LEA closes schools and colleges in order to slow down or stop the spread of the COVID-19 and doesn’t provide proper educational services to the student population, then the LEA won’t be required to serve students with disabilities during the same time period. Once the schools and colleges start operating again, the LEA should do everything they can to provide education and specific essay services to the children and teenagers based on the IEP or FAPL based on Section 504 following an educational plan that meets all the necessary requirements.

The Department knows that there can be circumstances that influence a certain provided service. In addition, all the services involved, including the IEP team and FAPE personnel should evaluate whether compensatory services should be offered.

In case the LEA continues providing study services to the general students during the lockdown, the schools and colleges must make sure that disabled students have access to these services, including the FAPE provision. 

LEAs, SEAs, and educational establishments must make sure that every disabled student has access to special education and services indicated in student’s individual plans under the IDEA or any other plan developed on the basis of Section 504.

To make a conclusion from the cited above, the guidance states that:

  1. The corresponding laws don’t state directly how disabled students should study during situations when schools and colleges are closed for an unknown period of time. Covid-19 pandemic is one of such situations;
  2. If LEA can’t provide students with educational services, that it doesn’t have to provide special services to disabled students. In such a case, it must offer compensatory assistance;
  3. If LEA doesn’t provide general students with education during the pandemic, it must make sure that disabled students have equal opportunities, including FAPE provision.

The guidelines also discuss circumstances when schools with special education are closed when students are inflected and can’t addend schools and colleges. Another discussed issue is that schools include contingency plans to the IEPs.

The next guidance was issued on March 16 by the Office for Civil Rights of the Department of Education. It’s called ‘Addressing the risk of Covid-19 at schools and protecting the civil rights of students’.

This OCR guidance refers to the same issues as the March 12 guidance but also explains how IEP meetings must be held during the times when schools and colleges are closed, and communities need to isolate. 

The guidance says that the IEP teams don’t have to meet in person during the period of isolation. In case evaluation of a disabled student needs a face-to-face meeting or observation, it should be delayed until educational establishments reopen.

Evaluations that don’t require face-to-face meetings can take place during the lockdown with the agreement of parents or legal guardians. The same applies to other activities and measures conducted by corresponding personnel to a disabled student, who has an individual plan based on Section 504.

This means that the IEP team can hold a teleconference or use other online methods of communication to discuss the needs of a disabled student and how they can be met considering the modern conditions. They should discuss how a student should act and study during school closures and any lockdowns. The same can also be applied for the staff implementing plans based in Section 504. If the evaluation requires a personal meeting and observation, it must be delayed.

How to Educate Disabled Students During the School Closures

As it was stated above, there are no specific guidelines on how to serve disabled students during the crisis, so the best approach is considering every available tool and option. Below we have gathered the most effective measures on how to educate and not to interrupt the educational process. We encourage all participants of the process, including parents and educators, to communicate and cooperate, coming up with the best solution.

1. Virtual or online education

Many states advise schools and colleges to give instructions through the internet. Virtual models include online instructions and blended learning, which includes elements of a regular classroom and a virtual one. Considering the general lockdown, which concerns billions of people worldwide, learning online becomes an attractive alternative. However, the transition to virtual learning may be quite difficult, especially considering the absence of preparation.

The main problems are instructional practice, software and hardware, staff experience, and the time and money to develop virtual education systems. Schools should be read to provide computers, Internet access, and other devices for free to students who don’t have enough funds to do that on their own.

IEP students also have a right to educate together with non-disabled students in the most appropriate environment that is adjusted to their needs. It should be remembered that online education may sometimes be difficult for disabled students.

This may be true for occupational and physical services, social support, and other assistance that requires a face-to-face meeting. Another issue is that online learning systems often require the participation of adults that can assist disabled students. Unfortunately, parents or family members of a disabled student may lack enough skills and training to cope with the software and online study programs.

However, the problem is not new – online schooling has had difficulties with meeting the needs of specialized students for years. Luckily, there are several resources that explain how to face these challenges (but no on the Covid-19 outbreak so far).

The most helpful and effective so far is the Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities or COLSD website. It was a work of the Center of Applied Special Technologies, the University of Kansas, and the National Association of Special Education.

It collects multiple reports and gives recommendations on how to help specialized students and their families to access online programs and use them effectively.

2. Independent study

Another way to solve the issue is to utilize independent study programs, which don’t involve online education. With its help, students can educate using hard copy materials like printed out books, journals, and other learning sources. No matter what the format is, disabled students must have access to accommodation and support. All these requirements should be indicated in the IEP or 504 Plan.

3. Blended learning

As you understand from the definition, blended learning is a term, which refers to an educational method, which combines both virtual and real education. Considering that Covid-19 made it difficult for students to get an education in a physical building, regular models of blended education may not be effective.

However, there is a possibility that schools and colleges can send written and printed materials to students’ homes. These materials could come along with virtual elements. Students with disabilities have a right to claim any type of support that is needed in order to utilize these materials. Blended learning may have the same challenges as online education has, so when choosing this option, schools and colleges should make sure they have all the necessary tools and materials.

4. 504 and IEP teams

After the closure of educational establishments and the country’s lockdown, it’s important for the IEP and 504 staff to come up with a vial plan for providing services to disabled students during these times. This includes highlighting that home is the best placement during the pandemic and introducing a clear action plan of what services should be provided remotely and what services – compensated after the lockdown.

The crucial part of their work is to evaluate the needs and requirements of disabled students, which will help to understand the best way of solving the problem. Keep in mind that IEP and 504 teams don’t have to gather face-to-face if the issues can be addressed online or through a telephone conference.

5. Compensatory education

In some cases, the IDEA allows receiving the required services retroactively for students with an individual educational plan. This takes place, when circumstances don’t allow providing services in a regular manner: because the disabled student is ill or is not able to receive the assistance, or because the educational establishment failed to deliver the services on time.

Educational authorities must define how many hours of certain services should be provided later to make up for the hours that were missed during the circumstances (Covid-19 pandemic, in this case). For example, students who need personal physical therapy on a regular basis (several times a week) may be awarded a certain number of hours after the quarantine ends.

Unfortunately, it is quite difficult for a school or another educational establishment to decide whether it must find a way to deliver certain services in one of the ways above, or it is possible to postpone the services for later. The decision should be made during an IEP team gathering, whether online or in person. To make a proper decision, the person should approach the needs and requirements of every student with a disability.

If the Covid-19 continues to evolve, more schools and colleges will have to close their doors. Thus, the necessity of creating ways to meet the needs and desires of students, especially those with disabilities, will only increase.

The best decision is to engage all participants: schools, colleges, districts, and networks and come up with a list of experiences and ideas. This will open up more space for innovations and provide a collective decision in favor of students with disabilities.

Remember, it is crucial for governments and other institutions to come up with a plan on how to meet the pandemic. This plan should consist of a thoughtful and proactive approach to protect and support students with disabilities.