COVID-19 has caused dramatic disruptions to the lives of students across the country. One group, however, has been especially impacted by the pandemic’s effects on schooling: students in special education programs.
Leandra Elion, a lecturer at the Tufts Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development, told Tufts Now in Sept. 2020, “Generally speaking, in special education, one of the strategies that works the best is a structured routine — and that’s gone. It’s now parents who must establish that routine, and there is no prescription for what that looks like in a COVID-19 world.”
The special education program helps provide students who have special needs—such as students with visual or hearing impairments, autism, dyslexia, or other conditions that make traditional learning difficult — with tailored resources and support so that they can learn, grow, and contribute to their communities like every other student.
According to Fountain Valley High School special education teacher Angela Ferguson McConnell, pre-COVID special education classes contained a “smaller group of students than a general education classroom,” and “class numbers ranged from 8 students up to 20 students in a class.”
Ferguson said this student-to-teacher ratio “provides students more opportunity to work with the teacher one-to-one on specific academic goals.”
Another important aspect of special education before the COVID-19 pandemic was the opportunity for students with special needs to participate in sports programs with other students, as Ocean View High School special education teacher Christopher Yang explained.
“Unified Sports was robust,” Young said. “General and special education students competed on the same team against other teams in the district. The whole school would pack the gym to watch and root on the teams.”
However, since the COVID-19 pandemic began, those in-person activities have changed.
“Just like the general education students, students with special needs are receiving instruction through online platforms like Google Meets/Canvas/Zoom,” Young said. “As we are observing with general education students, students with special needs clearly learn/absorb content better in a classroom setting.”
Ferguson said that “independent learning, navigating different technology, time management and organization” are all “hurdles [that] impede all students; but students that already struggled with these skills are finding distance learning to be especially challenging.”
In August, the California Department of Public Health issued guidance allowing in-person specialized support for students who required extra assistance in receiving an adequate education during COVID-19. Teachers were allowed to meet with students in cohorts of no more than 14 students, provided they followed COVID-19 safety guidelines.
While a return to normalcy is still a long way off for special education students, as with their general education counterparts, Young said the extent to which many of his students had adapted to circumstances that were especially challenging for them was impressive.
“I am very proud of these students’ ability to swim, even against the current,” Young said. “The biggest success story for our students is their ability to adapt even when faced with a large mountain to climb.”
Editor’s note: This story was originally published on Baron News in February 2021.