The pandemic brought massive unexpected changes to the education sector. While schools closed, students and teachers struggled to shift to a virtual environment.
Special education teachers faced unprecedented challenges in the "new normal" learning environment. Moving to virtual home-based learning can be challenging for parents and teachers as it can be difficult to provide instruction to each student's needs from the other side of the screen. Special education is more than just students with special needs. When we speak of the sector, we address students of different ages, abilities, interests, and limitations that require individual education programs.
Unlike creating online lesson plans and worksheets, special education teachers must develop strategies for each student individually in sync with their IEPs.
The changing teaching environment brought hurdles never seen before. Another critical challenge is ensuring students get the proper support they require to meet their IEP. Special education students can access a range of aids and therapies in school that can greatly impact their education in schools. Since they're learning from home, it could lead to altered support services and educational aids available in schools and classrooms. They may get access to limited assistance and support from professionals.
A descriptive study on the impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Children With Special Needs reveals that COVID-19 negatively affected families at a rate of 94.6 per cent. The study determined emotional and behavioural challenges amid the pandemic as they learned from home. One hundred sixteen children and their families participated in the study. One of the prime reasons that negatively affected the students was unfamiliarity and irregularity in daily routines. Despite having increased time with family, the instability in routine caused a lot of distress for students with special needs. It also highlights increased screen time from 1 to 3 hours. The families' responses reveal that children's development had a hard hit, and their development regressed to almost 18.8 per cent. Special education practices at home ceased by 17.2 per cent. A significant difference was found between the groups with and without regression in development regarding the frequency of continuing special education at home.
Another study focusing on education during the pandemic for autistic students surveyed 106 special education teachers, speech pathologists and behaviour specialists who work closely with students with autism. The study was conducted to understand how students adapted to changed instruction and complied with the complex safety parameters of the pandemic, such as social distancing and sudden changes in the environment. The Participants reported "making the best out of a bad situation" and "constantly using 'trial & error' to find the best way for our students to eLearn. Other key factors that helped students were collaborating with parents who monitored their progress and assisted in the virtual delivery of instruction and intervention. Sticking to updated IEPs, flexibility and maintaining social goals per the child's abilities were beneficial.
"Participants were surprised that while students with more intense needs struggled, others preferred virtual instruction. This raises concerns about what will happen in the future when social expectations resume. Despite the overwhelming challenges posed by COVID-19, participants demonstrated remarkable resiliency and creative ability to adapt instruction."
A report on learning loss of special education from covid-19 by The State Education Department, New York, reveals that many factors associated with remote learning reduce special education programs, supports, and related services that students with disabilities need to meet their educational goals. The report states, "46 per cent of City students with disabilities received only part of the interventions specified in their IEPs or none."
Remote learning also reduced the effectiveness of special education services that were being provided that ordinarily require a hands-on or face-to-face approach or specialised equipment that was unavailable at home. School districts and teachers acknowledged that staff reallocation, shortened school days, and reliance on home caregivers to provide specialised instruction all contributed to significant difficulty in providing special education to meet the unique needs of each student with a disability.
This blog on The Pandemic's Toll on Children with Special Needs and Their Parents in New York Times explains the story of Ms Eliza, the mother of a 9-year-old with autism. She shares, "her son was excited to be home. He was happy that he didn't have to get up early for school". While it took some time to get going with special education classes virtually initially when they started, her son enjoyed the virtual technology and online classes. He did well. She says, "He was happy to see his teachers and very interested in the computer technology. But when the teachers started giving his mother extra work to do with him, things got harder."
The hard part led to aggressive episodes where the kid didn't want to work with his mother. “He didn't want me to help him with the problems; he wanted me to give him the answers." she shares that his problem behaviours from the past started to come back. He didn't see me as a teacher — he would become very aggressive with me and start hitting me.”
Dr Marilyn Augustyn, a developmental and behavioural paediatrician at Boston Medical Center and professor of paediatrics at Boston University School of Medicine, says that Many children had academic and social issues at home, but "the challenges were exacerbated for kids with developmental challenges by Covid. Some children aren't getting their therapy, some miss being in the classroom, and some parents decided to stop medications or couldn't get refills".
Dr Jenny Radesky, a developmental-behavioural paediatrician, reports extreme negative emotions disturbing students with special needs. "Some children showed angry outbursts, intense crying episodes, and emotionally dysregulated signs."
All in all, parents, practitioners, and researchers agree that the circumstances of the pandemic resulted in massive learning loss for students with special needs and will exacerbate pre-existing achievement gaps, especially for students with disabilities.
This guide is to help everyone who is working with students with special needs fulfil their education goals in the pandemic. We have covered the challenges in online learning, how to tackle them, strategies and tips teachers can use in online classes, and a list of comprehensive resources you can refer to.