Does remote instruction leave some students behind?

Expert Insight

Does remote instruction leave some students behind?

7 million+

students in the United States receive special educations services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

With the recent cascade of school closures in response to COVID-19, some districts (such as the District of Columbia Public Schools) are turning to the promise of remote instruction. Federal guidance released on Thursday states that if schools transition to remote instruction, then they must provide equal access to instruction for students with disabilities.

But administrators and teachers lack clear guidance or actionable strategies to accommodate these students remotely. On Monday, The Seattle Times reported that the parents of one student with disabilities struggled to help him complete his assignments during the district’s first day of remote instruction. And NPR quoted Chris Reykdal, Washington’s superintendent for public instruction, questioning, “how does a paraeducator get to their 20 or 30 students [for one-on-one instruction] if they’re distributed all in their individual homes…?”

During an abrupt transition to remote instruction, schools lack the time and resources to ensure uninterrupted special education services 

Under federal law, schools commit to executing Individualized Education Program (IEPs) for students with disabilities. These legal documents ensure that each student with disabilities receives accommodations and modifications to instruction. Federal guidance for remote instruction during natural disasters—a useful blueprint for COVID-19—seems to acknowledge that services for students with disabilities may fall through the cracks when officials and administrators scramble to respond to an unexpected instructional shift. As students with disabilities are already at higher risk for worse outcomes than their peers, this is cause for concern.

If remote learning cannot satisfy all IEP accommodations, is truly possible to provide remote instruction to all students?

Last week, The Seattle Times reported that state officials were encouraging districts to make up lost instructional time later, rather than transitioning to remote instruction. An official, Rhett Nelson, specifically cited “civil rights issues” for students who may be unable to learn from remote instruction as a key reason. But as the timeline for school closures remain uncertain, it appears likely—and understandable—that districts with the capacity for remote instruction will continue to explore that possibility. 

Successful, equitable remote instruction during the Covid-19 pandemic could jump-start other eLearning initiatives

This pandemic may provide lessons on how to more equitably serve special student populations when responding to future emergencies. Specifically, IEP teams can include plans for distance learning in  students’ IEPs. For those districts that have not yet shut down, they can begin planning now for how to support distance learning should the district close. For example, they might consider integrating a variety of curriculum-based aids and activities, such as  technological learning aids, some of which have shown promising results. Moreover, teachers and administrators should document the impact of this period of remote instruction on students with disabilities, to inform not only interventions when school resumes but plans for the future. 

Remote instruction is not going to go away entirely once in-person learning resumes; indeed, officials have been experimenting with it as an alternative to traditional snow days for years. Instead, states and districts should treat this moment as a wake-up call to invest in the structures, planning, and technology they need to equitably deliver remote instruction.

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