The shift to distance learning due to the coronavirus pandemic in spring of 2020 created access and language barriers for some of D.C.’s most vulnerable students, including students with disabilities and English learners. In that time, what obstacles did educators face when supporting students with special education and language learning needs during distance learning? What steps can educators take in the future to serve these students more effectively?
Students with disabilities
The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires schools to educate students with disabilities in a manner that meets each student’s needs. It mandates that eligible students receive an Individualized Education Program (IEP), a customized plan that outlines the services they are required to receive.[i] When distance learning began in the spring, some educators struggled to teach students with disabilities, believing that federal disability law presented an insurmountable barrier to remote education. In response, the Department of Education stated that seeking compliance with these laws should not prevent districts from offering educational programs to students with disabilities.[ii]
Since then, special education teachers have been working to develop unique lesson plans that align with their students’ IEPs. In doing so, they are facing three major obstacles, among others:
- Many of the services students with disabilities require are difficult to deliver virtually. For example, some students need assistive technology they may not have access to at home such as voice recognition programs.[iii] Others might need occupational or physical therapy they are unable to receive at home.[iv]
- Many students with disabilities need the structure of the school day to learn successfully.[v]
- Parents and caregivers are not necessarily equipped to take on the roles of multiple specialized coaches.[vi] For example, Abria, a student who has chronic lung disease and epilepsy, attends Rocketship Legacy Prep where she has a team of teachers and therapists who help her throughout the day. Now, she only has her mom, who is understandably unable to fill all these roles.[vii]
Approximately 17 percent of students who attend public or public charter schools in D.C. receive special education services and approximately 1,500 of those students have multiple disabilities.[viii] They receive between eight to at least 24 hours of specialized services per week, depending on need. Some of the most common primary disabilities are speech or language impairment and developmental delays.[ix]
This fall, schools are taking additional steps to serve students with special education needs more effectively.[x] Chancellor of DC Public Schools (DCPS) Lewis D. Ferebee announced that DCPS is providing special education teachers with additional training for online learning, hosting a session for families of students with disabilities so they know what to expect, and adding a virtual learning component to each student’s IEP. Chancellor Ferebee also said he plans to prioritize getting students with disabilities back in classrooms.[xi] Charter schools are similarly invested, with a handful, including the city’s two largest charter networks KIPP DC and Friendship, already allowing students with disabilities to return to campus and receive services in-person.[xii]
In D.C., English learners comprise 11 percent of the student body.[xiv] Data suggest that these students have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. For example, more than 75 percent of English learners are from Latinx families, and a recent poll found that 54 percent of Latinx families lost work or income due to the pandemic.[xiii] To assess how English learners were served last spring, Californians Together, an English learner advocacy organization surveyed more than 650 educators. They found that only 17 percent of respondents reported that their English learners were regularly participating in class[xv], a bleak indicator of potential learning loss that can be attributed, in part, to two factors:
- English learners are disproportionately likely to live in low-income households and may therefore have less reliable access to computers and internet.[xvi]
- English learners are more likely to come from large families, which means that if they do have a computer at home, they might be sharing it with other family members.[xvii]
This lack of reliable access to technology has a domino effect. If English learners, who likely speak a different language at home, cannot participate in class, they will no longer have consistent exposure to English and will be less likely to learn the language. Ensuring that they have the technology they need would enable daily exposure to English and could go a long way in helping them succeed academically.[xviii]
Additional steps such as providing resources in multiple languages could also inspire engagement.[xix] Last spring, DCPS offered translations of learning material in Spanish, Amharic, French, Chinese, and Vietnamese. Some charter schools also provided translations of communication and learning materials. For example, DC Bilingual offered Spanish and English versions of materials, and DC Prep PCS partnered each non-English speaking family with a staff member who could speak the same language.
To learn more about what supports will be available this fall for students with disabilities and English learners, the D.C. Policy Center reached out to education agency staff, school leaders, parents, teachers, and advocates to ask the following: How are schools serving students with disabilities and English learners during distance learning this fall? What lessons were learned last spring?
Kerri Larkin, Senior Deputy Chief of Specialized Instruction, DC Public Schools
Elba Garcia, Executive Director, Language Acquisition Division, DC Public Schools
Teachers, related service providers, and parents are collaborating with one another in new and innovative ways.
As part of our commitment to #ReopenStrong, students in need of special education services, English language support, and other required supports still receive these services through all-virtual instruction. Teachers, related service providers, and parents are collaborating with one another in new and innovative ways.
Special education teachers are using both the general education curriculum and specialized content to introduce new learning while building student engagement in virtual instruction. Related service providers received additional training, as well as new assessments and materials, to promote virtual service delivery in alignment with academic content. Students with IEPs are receiving individualized distance learning plans that help clarify how the IEP will be administered during the learning at home period. We also know that virtual learning is challenging for our parents. To support them, DCPS released an updated Family Resource Guide and hosted two Parent University sessions specific to families of students with IEPs.
DCPS is using Canvas as our online learning hub, and all Course Companions are in alignment with general education classes and students to builds consistency in the daily routine for every DCPS student and family. Additionally, the online curriculum through Canvas features built-in accessibility features such as immersive reader, dictation, and translation.
Educators have access to range of services that provide language access to students and families, including live interpretation support and translation apps. We know that effective communication and engagement in a language understood by the family is a pillar of building strong relationships between our schools and families. The Language Acquisition Division Welcome Center and Language Access Unit are supporting schools and educators as they connect with our families daily, providing clear information to English Learner (EL) families about important services available to them from District government and their schools.
English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers are actively working with their core content and special education counterparts to support language development through grade level content and are building out their Canvas Course Companions as a result. Further, ESL teachers are building individual language goals for students based on the available EL data. These language goals will allow core content and special education teachers to provide tailored support and challenge EL students based on their individual areas of language proficiency. DCPS will continue to provide high-quality supports for our EL students and families as we increase access and engagement during the learning at home period.
Hannah Cousino, Manager of Equity, Audits, and Supports, DC Public Charter School Board
DC PCSB convened the English Learner and Special Education Professional Learning Communities respectively. 37 leaders public charter schools attended. During these meetings, we discussed lessons learned from the year.
Students with disabilities
While every Local Education Agency (LEA) will rely on virtual platforms for the primary setting of their special education program, about one-third of LEAs are offering in-person IEP meetings, evaluations, and related services for selective cases when appropriate. Schools are working with families to arrange IEP meetings and to develop mutually agreeable schedules that work school staff and families. Furthermore, they are offering trainings, holding office hours, and making frequent contact to help families best support their students with disabilities at home.
About half of LEAs deliver English learner services through an inclusion/collaborative model (as defined in OSSE’s Delivering Education Services to English learners). Across program models, LEAs indicated that they will embed supports for English learners across distance learning plans. For example, teachers will develop lessons that align to individualized English learner plans, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles, and/or the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP).
Lessons Learned from the Spring
On May 26 and May 29, DC PCSB convened the English Learner and Special Education Professional Learning Communities respectively. 37 leaders public charter schools attended. During these meetings, we discussed lessons learned from the year. Here is a summary of the responses.
- Developing strong relationships with families. As one coordinator shared, “Parents are our biggest asset. They helped us guide instruction and implement distance learning plans.”
- Training on teaching and learning in a virtual environment. A variety of training topics for teachers, students, and families were discussed, including virtual engagement, Universal Design for Learning (UDL), technology platforms, and collaboration.
- Need for social-emotional support for students, staff, and families. As one coordinator explained, “Everyone needs to practice some self-care now, and plans must explicitly address this need.”
- Managing logistics. A few leaders wished that they had distributed technology sooner. Others mentioned the importance of developing clear schedules and tracking the delivery of services.
Kalana Elaster, Principal, Bridges PCS
This year, we have built in plenty of parent training time and opportunities for meetings and questions and we’ve continued to work on wellness for our parents and staff.
Bridges is working hard to serve students with the greatest needs during the most challenging times that schools have experienced. For our students with disabilities, we have many one on one virtual sessions with the students and provide parents with the necessary tools/materials they will need to work with their child at home. We are videotaping all our sessions to make sure parents have unfettered access to the information they need. To meet the social and emotional needs of our students, we are also providing them with a time to meet so they have a space to process things they are coping with during these times.
To serve our English learners, teachers meet with them regularly in virtual small groups and assist them. Additionally, we use our bilingual Teaching Assistants to help students make meaning of instruction and provide small group time for them to work with the TAs and ask questions. We have a Wellness Team that reaches out to these families because many of them struggle with the technology. We host parent sessions and work to provide additional resources through our relationship with Mary’s Center.
Last spring, everything happened so quickly, and there was little time to plan. This year, we have built in plenty of parent training time and opportunities for meetings and questions and we’ve continued to work on wellness for our parents and staff. We are all still trying to figure this out together and pray that this will all be over soon.
Julie Camerata, Executive Director, DC Special Education Cooperative
The interventions we will use this school year not only have high efficacy for students with disabilities, but also use engaging adaptive technology, modeled and independent instruction, and differentiated instruction in a way that is perfect for in-person and distance learning.
While each service on an individual education program (IEP) matters, one of the most important services that can be provided to students with disabilities is remediation, or filling the gaps in foundational academic skills. Many of our schools report receiving students (with and without disabilities) who are multiple grade levels behind in reading and/or math skills.
When the pandemic hit and everything slowed down as schools, and frankly the world tried to recalibrate, the DC Special Education Cooperative (Co-op) and our member charter schools discussed how we could use this new normal as an opportunity. Perhaps this was the moment to prioritize remediation? The Co-op’s solution to academic gaps is simple, provide an evidence-based intervention (EBI) to all students with disabilities who need one. The interventions we will use this school year not only have high efficacy for students with disabilities, but also use engaging adaptive technology, modeled and independent instruction, and differentiated instruction in a way that is perfect for in-person and distance learning.
This fall, eight charters, 16 school administrators, 17 special education teachers, and 297 students with disabilities will join us in this work. To ensure the success of this project, each school’s leadership team has committed to the following:
- Modifying the master schedule to accommodate an intervention block
- Creating time for special educators to receive training and coaching on EBI implementation
- Using intervention data to adjust services as necessary and ensure that students are progressing
Students with disabilities can and should be performing at higher levels than current citywide data shows. This was true long before the pandemic. We must do everything in our power not to allow current circumstances to allow gaps to widen. The Co-op considers this work an action research project and plans to share lessons learned and results with the D.C. education community in the coming months.
James Tandaric, English as a Second Language teacher
As an ESL teacher, I need to collaborate with the teachers from PK3 and 1st grade to ensure that each student’s needs are being met based on their ELPs. This includes numerous meetings and check-ins to plan and reflect on the lesson. As the year goes on, I will often differentiate lessons.
I work at a Public Charter school as an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher. I support PK3 and 1st grade, and almost all the kids in those grades identify as English learners. One of the biggest ways I support them is through the use of English Language Plans (ELP). Similar to an Individualized Education Plan, we use these documents for each ESL student to assess their English language proficiency based on four language domains (Speaking, Listening, Reading, and Writing). We gather data from ACCESS (Assessing Comprehension and Communication in English State-to-State for English Language Learners) testing using WIDA guidelines along with anecdotal data throughout the year. Due to COVID-19, ACCESS testing was interrupted, so we have to use data from the previous year. Even so, I have never seen a school develop this type of plan for their ESL students, and I often use this to individualize lessons based on the students I work with.
Co-planning is another strategy I use to support ESL students. As an ESL teacher, I need to collaborate with the teachers from PK3 and 1st grade to ensure that each student’s needs are being met based on their ELPs. This includes numerous meetings and check-ins to plan and reflect on the lesson. As the year goes on, I will often differentiate lessons. This is done through parallel teaching, which means I will teach the same lesson as the general teacher except I will have more supports for my group. During virtual learning, I work with students that are below grade level in a breakout room while the general education teacher carries out the same lesson in the main room. With co-planning, I can make sure all ESL students, regardless of their English language proficiency, are taken care of.
Renee Davis, PAVE Parent Leader, Ward 1
During a typical school day before the pandemic, Alexa would have interacted with seven different people to support her, including but not limited to a nurse at home, an aide on the school bus, her teachers, her job coach, school psychologists, and school nurses. Due to COVID-19, she now only interacts with me.
I have two children in my neurodiverse family – a daughter and a son. I want to focus on the experience of my daughter Alexa. She has a private placement in a school that specializes in autism, and she goes to school in a different jurisdiction. During a typical school day before the pandemic, Alexa would have interacted with seven different people to support her, including but not limited to a nurse at home, an aide on the school bus, her teachers, her job coach, school psychologists, and school nurses. Due to COVID-19, she now only interacts with me, so I’ve worked really hard since the spring to make a support plan for Alexa at home. It was critical for me that we continue her medical-based services in the home. She qualifies for health services, which has meant that we’ve been able to make several changes to our household. She’s receiving all her services in both the medical arena and the school arena at home. My biggest question is if we can get more support or a better partnership between the medical-based services and Medicaid dollars to support families of students with disabilities through the pandemic.
Luz Valera, PAVE Parent Leader, Ward 1
Compared to last semester, I have noticed a huge positive change in my daughters’ school’s response to distance learning, but I am still concerned about a few things.
Last spring was extremely difficult for families and for the school. Being new to this country and having to shelter in place during the pandemic in the middle of the school year was a shock for my three daughters. It’s their first year in the United States, so attending school was already a challenge for them. I was worried about them, so I had several conversations with their teachers, who suggested that my daughters repeat the school year. I believed they have my daughters’ best interests in mind so I agreed that having my daughters repeat the school year could help them adjust to the new academics and language.
The school also connected us to the resources we needed. This pandemic has been extremely hard for us. My husband provides the income for our family and his hours were greatly reduced during the pandemic. He used to have two jobs and now only has one with very few hours. Although last spring was difficult, I knew the unique needs of my family were not forgotten by the school because the school social worker would often call me to check in and connect me to resources for my daughters. She connected me to community resources where we could find food and rent support in the community.
As planned, this year my daughters began school in the same grade level as last year – two of them are in Kindergarten and the oldest is in fifth grade. Compared to last semester, I have noticed a huge positive change in my daughters’ school’s response to distance learning, but I am still concerned about a few things. At the beginning of this school year, the school provided us with computers for each grade level and all the school supplies my daughters would need to participate in the virtual lessons, which I really appreciated.
However, I often see my two kindergarteners attend their virtual classes, and all they do is sit in front of the computer and watch the teacher instruct in English even though they do not understand what she is saying. I am always there encouraging them to ask questions, but I am disappointed that the teacher is reading books in English and teaching in English, and my daughters are not able to access the same resources in Spanish. My oldest daughter has had much more luck – her learning tools are accessible in both English and Spanish. Another issue is that I don’t always feel supported by my daughters’ school.
A week ago I fell very ill – I could barely eat and was bed ridden. Since I need to be present to help my children connect to their virtual classes, I wrote to the school explaining that my daughters would be going to the doctor’s office with me and would not be able to attend classes while I was sick. This broke some trust between me and the school. I was angry about the lack of support my children are receiving to simply be present for their classes and how despite my illness, the school was still asking me to do everything I could to connect my daughters to their classes.
I want my daughters to enjoy school and make the most of their learning experiences, but we know that it is extremely difficult for them during this time, especially because English is not their first language. Luckily, I am back on my feet again, and I am able to continue to support my daughters in their classes, but I am still very concerned about their future.