The longer we wait to resume in-person instruction for some students, the more likely it is that students with disabilities will get left behind.
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Tim Villegas
Special Educator, Founder and Head Curator at Think Inclusive

August 03, 2020

As we look to reopen schools for students, teachers, and support staff, what are we willing to sacrifice for the welfare of everyone?

Few educators thought, when they left their school buildings in mid-March of 2020, that they wouldn’t step back in until the summer. Now, with the number of cases of Covid-19 rising in the United States, the debate rages on about whether to open schools for in-person learning.

For months, students have been in lockdown at home, with face-to-face education put on hold. The transition to digital learning has been okay for some students, but certainly not all. Most students with multiple disabilities and complex behavioral needs have had almost no access to impactful learning during this time. While special education teachers have been doing their best to provide virtual instruction for students with more significant disabilities, their virtual efforts necessarily fall short. Some services, like occupational or physical therapy, simply can’t be delivered virtually.

Many districts are asking families with children who receive special education services to make the difficult choice of either entirely virtual or entirely in-person instruction. The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA) have asked the United States Department of Education (ED) and state education authorities to issue guidance to parents who opt to keep students out of school for the 2020-2021 school year. States and school districts are required to provide free and appropriate public education, whether that education is virtual, in-person, hybrid, or home-based.

There is no easy solution to the problem of reopening schools

Frankly, no option will satisfy everyone. While districts that have decided to go 100 percent virtual starting out the school year may be following the guidance of some health experts, this decision has definite drawbacks in terms of the social and emotional health of people with disabilities.

When I was a classroom teacher, a strategy that worked for me was to arrange the class and instruction for the students who required the most support first, and then plan accordingly for the rest. One plan (from Akron Public Schools in Ohio) puts the needs of younger students and those with significant disabilities first. Students with complex support needs will be able to attend school five days a week this fall, but older students and students with few complex support needs will learn from home at least three days a week. Why haven't more districts created plans like these?

The latest report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommends that public school districts should prioritize full-time, in-person classes for grades K-5 and for students with disabilities. But an overwhelming number of school reopening plans give all students only two options: either full-time in-person learning or full-time virtual learning.

What can we learn from other countries reopening schools?

Recently, Education Week gave some examples of what reopening schools looked like in countries outside North America. Some schools in Australia are having students come back only one day per week, with each grade level attending school on certain days. In Denmark, class sizes have been significantly reduced (generally to about 10 students) by reassigning single-subject teachers, like art or PE teachers, to act as homeroom teachers. Schools in Taiwan require masks at all times with strict social distancing, and they also utilize pop-up tents outside to increase the space for eating.

According to the Washington Post, all countries that have reopened schools without further outbreaks did not open until after they had achieved near-zero case incidence and low community-transmission rates. As a whole, this has not been the strategy of the United States, and the pressure to have schools be "fully operational" has come directly from top.

What should reopening schools look like for students with disabilities?

The consensus of many school districts to start the school year virtually is all but a certainty, but when cases of COVID-19 drop, we still need a plan to go back to school. The safety of students and teachers needs to be paramount. Based on the plans out there, here are some of the best suggestions from across the web for safely going back to school:

What are we willing to sacrifice?

Only a few months into a global pandemic, we know that COVID-19 is most deadly for older adults and people with underlying medical conditions. Still, everyone is at risk. As we look to reopen schools for students, teachers, and support staff, what are we willing to sacrifice for the welfare of everyone?

It will be nearly impossible to wait for COVID-19 to disappear completely before we reopen school buildings. As a nation, we have sacrificed comfort for safety before, and it is likely we aren’t going back to a world without some kind of social distancing and hygiene measures. Balancing the risk of reopening with the social and emotional consequences for students and families is a razor’s edge. But one thing is certain: the longer we wait to resume in-person instruction for some students, the more likely it is that students with disabilities will get left behind. That's why it's important to prioritize in-person learning for younger students and students with disabilities, and to find ways to help older students and students with fewer complex needs to thrive while learning virtually.

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