How COVID-19 Amplifies K-12 Special Education Inequalities

Remote Learning Can Add Up to an “Automatic Denial of Their Free, Appropriate Education”

In the Spring of 2020, the sudden and sprawling shut down of elementary, middle, and high schools across the United States was unprecedented and unplanned. In the immediate aftermath, students and teachers alike scrambled to adapt to the new normal of remote learning that would remain until the COVID-19 pandemic loosened its grip on the country. Lost amongst the shuffle were special education students, who were sent home without the assurance that their Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) would continue as scheduled or that they would receive necessary accommodations while at home.

School districts assumed they could let the special education component of their schools slide in the face of unprecedented curriculum changes and simply play catch up with the students come the fall of 2020 when classes resumed in-person. In fact, that plan was endorsed by the U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who called for flexibility and blatantly said that special education laws should not stand in the way of enacting fully remote learning for the remainder of the spring semester. Students who regressed during that time, she claimed, should be re-evaluated and compensated in the fall.

The problem? Schools largely did not return to in-person learning in the fall of 2020. Nor did they return in the spring of 2021. All the while, children with special needs have fallen further behind, left in the dust as most students have adapted to the remote learning format.

According to Anya Kamenetz of NPR News, disgruntled families with children in special education programs are seeking legal action against their local school districts, citing a failure to adhere to their children’s IEPs and a denial of their children’s free and appropriate education. The impending lawsuits are widespread, with parents alarmed at their children’s regressions during the duration of the pandemic. The various lawsuits have been pulled together into a class action lawsuit -- one that, if ruled on favorably by the courts, would have unparalleled clout for special education provisions during events like the COVID-19 pandemic.

While it is not difficult to argue that the pandemic has exacerbated inequalities in the k-12 special needs community -- a community that was hardly equal with their able-bodies peers to begin with -- the courts have historically dragged their feet in special education cases because of the distinctiveness that each case presents. This is especially true in the face of a class action lawsuit, which is the combination of many similar cases that are suing under the violations of the same or similar laws. There has yet to be a strong precedent of the courts ruling that special needs children are a cumulative class of individuals due to the immense differences presented between each child. The courts fear that the solutions they present may not work for every student involved.

Regardless of how the courts decide to rule in this case, it is clear that something must happen to remedy the breach in equal access to a free and appropriate education that children with special needs have endured during the past year. It cannot be that children with special needs are left behind in favor of the majority when unplanned events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, hit. The last few decades have seen advances to more equalized education amongst all children under IEPs and access to appropriate resources. We cannot let that falter. We cannot throw a group of children to the side with promises of compensation in the future.

A pandemic calls for unique solutions in education; so too does the special needs community. If remote learning doesn’t work for the special needs community, then there must be new and inventive solutions that come into play, and it shouldn’t take a class action lawsuit to spur the change.

Written by Ryan Trombly

Ryan Trombly was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy when she was eighteen months old. The disability causes right-side hemiparesis that affects the entire right side of her body, weakening her muscles and limiting her mobility in everyday activities. Despite this, Ryan had strived to live a normal, independent life without any barriers and hopes to use her voice to advocate for the community of people with disabilities.

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