The shift to remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 exacerbated disparities already existing in the United States education system. Low-income students and students of color have disproportionately incurred learning losses and emotional difficulties compared to high-income and white students, which is also representative of the experiences of students with disabilities. These losses and difficulties may leave schools and other support services vulnerable to a variety of legal troubles, or may provide an avenue for growth and increased support as we transition into a post-pandemic world.
The pandemic, and the shift to remote learning, has resulted in unexpected benefits for students with disabilities who lean white and wealthy. For many students with social anxieties, a break from the classroom mitigated some of the stressors they experienced during in-person learning and has even increased attendance in class, as the social aspect of school sometimes forced them to stay home and miss out on learning altogether. The utilization of Zoom breakout rooms also aided in this, as it allowed students to meet in smaller groups removed from the large classroom setting and get more individualized attention from their teachers. It also made space for students and teachers alike to be creative in figuring out what served individual students’ learning styles best. For some students, listening to music on headphones while they watched their class with closed captioning increased their productivity; for others, emailing or texting their teacher’s questions privately was more comfortable than asking questions in front of their class, so they engaged more with the material. Many students also reported that they took advantage of technological resources that were not as prevalent during in-person learning, and that their teachers made more of an effort to check in on them one-on-one throughout the school year than they did when schools met in person.
This is the ideal. However, for many more students with disabilities, remote learning has been incredibly detrimental to their learning and overall well-being. Students with disabilities have lost countless hours of individual therapy sessions — whether it be speech therapy, physical therapy, behavioral counseling, or otherwise —that they received through their schools, and were unable to arrange supplementary services when schools went remote. This only contributed to their learning loss and has led to a deterioration of their physical and social skills. Other students reacted negatively to the isolation and lost motivation to attend class at all. Most notably, however, was the discrepancy in resources available to students across racial and socioeconomic lines. For students lacking computers or a reliable internet connection, accessing the limited resources that were available to them was nearly impossible. With that, these students often did not have families or communities that they could lean on for assistance when attending virtual class was not an option because their families did not have the flexibility to go remote as well. Further, many families did not know what resources they were entitled to or what arrangements they could make through their schools by way of developing or modifying individualized education programs, or IEPs. These are legal documents that road map learning goals and necessary resources that all students with disabilities in the United States are entitled to. However, attaining representation and advocating for a child’s needs are not luxuries that all families have the time or funds for. This only further increases the learning gap and the predicted achievement gap for students with disabilities.
Now the question lies in how to move forward in a world where the pandemic is less novel but ever challenging. Questions of civil rights violations against students with disabilities — namely, failure to meet requirements outlined by Section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act — may be unpacked and litigated as schools continue to reopen and transition to hybrid learning models. This could impact policy surrounding the allocation of resources for students with disabilities, or at the very least, move the conversation in that direction. Regardless, it is imperative that the lessons learned from COVID-19 with respect to students with disabilities be taken forward as we continue to move through the pandemic.