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COVID-19 and Online Learning for Special Education

Katie Coogan ’21

As we step into a new chapter of learning to navigate the world of online learning, each student seems to have a few stories to tell of the troubles they have faced so far. From poor internet connection to learning how to make a production project in their homes without the access to equipment and materials provided by school. The idea of online learning is something we can thank modern technology for, yet as of recent it seems like more of a luxury than an accessible feature of learning. In the case of Project Bloom, we take accessibility into consideration as a major part of students receiving education. While accessibility is a broad term for a variety of definitions, in this article I am exploring accessibility in terms of students in special education.

With a pandemic like COVID-19 hitting the United States, schools have quickly adjusted their teaching methods in order for children to stay at home and still have access to education. From pre-k to college, students have made a monumental shift to online learning. It is hard to conceptualize how a teacher can recreate a first or second grade classroom, where many of the building blocks of learning are really set into place, on a video call. However, these boundaries seem much less significant, when we begin to consider the effects of shifting to online on the community of students with disabilities.

The National Center for Education Statistics reported that as of 2018, 7 million students, aged 3-21 received special education services within the public schooling system. Overall, that accounts for 14% of public-school students. Based on these statistics, the large majority of these students are now using at home, online learning as their primary means of education.

This is an image of a female teacher working one on one with a student. They are in a colorful classroom, sitting at a small desk. The male students appears to be working on some type of color sequencing activity. The purpose of this image is to illustrate hands-on learning in special education.
Special Education Classroom

When it comes to special education, specifically in the realm of public schooling, there are special services offered to the students and many of the students work with an aid and/or multiple teachers and therapists. This is to ensure all of the students needs are met for them to have a comprehensive learning experience, all covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Many students who have disabilities require specific attention in the classroom to make sure their needs are met and that they are staying on track with their work. This extra attention now falls onto the parents of these children. NBC News covered the story of Kimber Rice, a mother of a seventh grader with intellectual disabilities. While Kimber was appreciative that the school provided her daughter with a Chromebook that has accessibility features specifically for her daughter’s needs, her daughter receives specific accommodations every day for things like speech and vision, that cannot be replicated at home. In addition, Kimber is now responsible in playing the role of her daughter’s teachers, though Kimber too has her own job that requires her attention.

This is a color photo of a woman (Kimber Rice) and her two children outside. In the background, there are rows of green trees. From the left the image is Kimber, her son, and her daughter.
Kimber Rice and her two children, Image by Kimber Rice via NBC

Parents of students in special education have been sharing narratives of life as we now know it, and the challenges of online learning in regard to their child’s education. The Department of Education made sure to specify that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that the education of students with special needs would not be interrupted or oppressed in any sense with the change to online learning. While parents have said that the teachers are in contact with them and many send educational packets, the level and standard of learning children with disabilities receive in classroom has dramatically changed with the shift to online learning. In addition, some of the assigned work for the students is not comprehensible for students who typically receive support in completing such activities. From hands on learning, physical and occupational therapy, to technology and equipment, the aid the children receive for education cannot be easily replicated online. This has left parents concerned about their children’s education and overall well-being, specifically that their children will regress in the progress they have already made. JoAnna Van Brusselen, the mother of a child who works with two teachers, three instructional aids, and seven therapists in a typical school week said, “I’m not a therapist; I’m not a nurse. I’m just a mom.”

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