The Pandemic Is a Crisis for Students With Special Needs

Some students rely on schools for the personal, hands-on attention of specialists. What do they do now?

A collage illustration of children working at desks, with images of braille behind them, in the screen of an iPhone
princessdlaf / Getty / Shutterstock / The Atlantic

Editor’s Note: In 1988, a teacher most commonly had 15 years of experience. In recent years, that number is closer to just three years leading a classroom. The “On Teaching” series focuses on the wisdom of veteran teachers.

Lauren Kahn is used to spending her whole day on the floor. She works at the Queens Center for Progress, teaching nonverbal 3- and 4-year-olds with intellectual disabilities and autism spectrum disorder, several of whom have visual impairments as well. The class is hands-on, to say the least—they sing, they play, they practice communicating with body language. Well, they used to.

Instructing her students is an impossible task from afar, so Kahn is trying to teach their parents to teach. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, she FaceTimes the parents so that they can put on their children, and on Tuesdays she sends out an email newsletter with exercises for the whole week. The theme of the month is plants; one week, she asked the parents to help their children sort vegetables by color, to see if they can point to the red ones or combine the orange ones.

But the parents aren’t teachers. They have their own jobs to worry about—or worse, are unemployed—and other children to tend to. Much of the time, the parents don’t pick up Kahn’s call, and she’s left to wonder how her students are doing. Sometimes, when she says she’ll call back, she’s told not to bother. She understands—it’s hard on everyone, especially low-income families such as those she typically serves. “They’re burned out,” she told me. So is she. Kahn tries to sing songs to her students over FaceTime so that she can see how they’re responding, but it’s hard to tell whether they even know she’s there; if she gets a smile, it’s a win so big, it’ll have to carry her for days.

For students with special needs—roughly 7 million in the U.S. ages 3 to 21—the coronavirus pandemic, and its attendant school closures, can be especially scary. At school, they get individualized attention from professionals who are trained in, and deeply familiar with, their unique ways of thinking, perceiving, and processing. But no amount of love and care at home can turn the average parent into a special-education teacher overnight. Nor can it enable them to practice occupational, speech, or physical therapy—services that are provided in many schools, but aren’t always covered by insurance and can therefore be otherwise out of reach. “A lot of students have had one-on-one professionals with them in the classroom, along with general-education and special-education teachers supporting them,” Elizabeth Barker, an accessibility researcher with the Northwest Evaluation Association, told me. “Now we’re asking parents to step into all of these roles.”

For many special-education students, the tools that other children are using to make remote education possible—online platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, printed work packets—just aren’t accessible. Students with disabilities often use assistive technology; for instance, a student with visual impairments might use screen-reader software to have text read aloud, or a braille reader to read the text themselves. But a lot of online platforms aren’t compatible with assistive technology—and even when they are, other problems frequently arise. Heidi Burns, an administrator at Kendall Demonstration Elementary School, which serves deaf and hard-of-hearing students, told me in an email that it’s been difficult at times to use Zoom for her class discussions, which happen in American Sign Language; when too many students are in the display, each individual gets smaller, and seeing and understanding signs becomes very hard. “So much of ASL is communicated through physical nuance in the immediate space, and I think that is not easy to catch on a screen,” Burns said. For the many students of Burns’s whose families don’t communicate via sign language, school is—was—the only place where they could communicate with other deaf people. “I am just grieving that loss of contact for myself as well as for our students.”

Even before the pandemic, Oryann Fitim, who is visually impaired, had trouble using some of the technology her teachers wanted her to. Now she’s in college—at a general-education school not built for students with visual impairments—and she’s supposed to begin a new term on April 20. The news that her classes will be remote made her heart sink. She’ll be taking a geography class, and she’d been counting on using tactile maps; she has no idea how she’ll be able to take in maps online. “I’m so scared,” she told me. “There’s no nervous excitement.”

Fitim’s former teacher Sonja Steinbach is currently trying to make remote lessons work herself. As an itinerant teacher for individuals with low-incidence disabilities—meaning those that occur relatively rarely in the population—she travels to students at different schools in Portland, Oregon. Lately she’s been rushing to mail out packets of braille documents to all her students’ homes, and arranging for her students to pick up braille writers—the devices that allow them to write in braille—from a local school, each at a designated time, so that they can stay socially distanced. But even with all the logistics sorted, certain lessons just can’t be taught remotely. Some students, for instance, have cortical visual impairments—meaning they stem from the brain, rather than the eyes—and they need constant exposure to very bright objects moving in certain patterns. Steinbach doesn’t know how to get students these visual materials, and they could suffer serious losses without it; it’s a “use it or lose it” type of progress, as she put it.

Still, teachers and parents have been working extraordinarily hard for their students with special needs, getting creative and putting in long hours, and finding ways to move forward. Tracy Murray teaches kindergarten through the ASD Nest program in New York City, which integrates students who have autism spectrum disorder with general-education students in the same classroom; she has eight general-education and four special-education kids. She’s been able to transfer almost all of her typical classroom activities to Zoom meetings, including the “social club” in which her four ASD students practice talking with each other, a speech teacher, and Murray or her co-teacher. The teachers have been delighted to find that these students, who usually have a very difficult time looking directly at people’s faces, find it much easier to do so through the computer screen. “We have their eyes looking right at us, and it’s not painful for them,” Murray said. “It’s beautiful.”

Jesse Thomas and David Day, both teachers at Model Secondary School for the Deaf, in Washington, D.C., hosted a Zoom webinar about where to find reliable news; nearly 50 students showed up, and Thomas and Day both felt immensely moved to see their students’ faces again and know that they were reaching them. “I had goosebumps, and we were emotional,” Thomas wrote to me in an email. “Maybe it’s because MSSD is a small school and knitted by the bonds of our common experiences and community of deaf people … it’s a family, really, and seeing them there on Zoom, it was just surreal.”

Loretta Norris and Pat Kitchens—both teachers at the Monarch School and Institute in Houston, which serves students with neurological disorders and learning disabilities—also told me that they were moved by the moments of connection they’ve been having with their students. They’ve both been using Zoom and Google Classroom, meeting and playing games with students and just trying to keep them engaged. One of Norris’s students hardly ever speaks, but he loves to sing and dance; she put on music so that he could sing along, and the rest of the class moved around and acted silly with him. Meanwhile, Kitchens noticed that monarch butterflies were hatching from chrysalises in the milkweed in front of her house; she carried her laptop outside and sat down right in her driveway, so her students could see them too. Her class is made up of a bunch of “serious boys,” as she called them, but she could tell they were spellbound.

In some cases, this period of remote schooling may even offer advantages. “Some days I feel like they’re more connected, and doing more on a daily basis, than when they were in class,” Norris said, sounding both bemused and amused. “Maybe it’s just different and fun for them.” She’s been getting emails from parents saying how happy they are that their children are so engaged, that they’re even talking about school at dinner. And she feels like the whole class is getting closer, because learning from home is intimate: Moms and dads can say hi on the Zoom call, and students can introduce one another to pets and show their rooms and lives.

The very nature of neurological and learning differences means that many special-needs students find change and inconsistency particularly stressful; it’s harder for them to be flexible, to go with the flow. But that also means that this time of social distancing could be a particularly good learning experience for them. “They’re learning a lot about the world,” Kitchens said. “This is what helps them grow.”

No one yet knows what the long-term impact will be on special-ed students. Some teachers and researchers predict a major backslide in learning, that students will return to school having significantly regressed. This phenomenon already happens, in special-education students particularly, over winter and summer breaks—what’s sometimes called the “summer slide”—and the longer students are out, the more likely they are to fall behind. Researchers are already starting to see a “melt” of skills among students in general, which portends even greater losses among those with disabilities. Murray told me that she’s worried about her ASD students losing the social-skills gains they’d made, without any time to practice on the playground or in playdates.

But teachers, faculty members, and families might be more prepared than ever, when the dust settles, to make up for lost time with a renewed sense of gratitude and possibility. “There are all these memes now about families having new appreciation for teachers,” Kitchens said, “but teachers also have a new appreciation for the families.” At the end of our call, Monarch’s head of school, Patti Pace, jumped in—she wanted me to know how amazing her teachers are, and how lucky she feels to work with them. “When I look at my teachers and their students, and the joy and the love they feel when they see each other, I just get this pit in my stomach,” she told me. “The evidence is there when the kids turn on the Zoom, and they see their teacher’s face—it’s a celebration.”

This article is part of our project “On Teaching,” which is supported by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Panta Rhea Foundation.