09.14.2020 0

Virtual learning fails children with disabilities

By Robert Romano

Schools across America have begun the 2020-2021 academic year, but approximately 67 percent of students in a snapshot of 19.6 million students in the 100 largest school districts in the U.S. are utilizing remote learning only to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Education Week.

Those children have not been to school in a physical setting since March in many cases, and the 7.1 million of children with disabilities who receive individualized, special education students may be the ones suffering the most.

If the Education Week snapshot is representative of the nation, that could mean as many as 4.8 million special education students have not been in a physical learning setting for about six months.

Now, Judith Sandalow, the executive director of Children’s Law Center in Washington, D.C. told American University Radio in an interview that these students are regressing: “Many children with special education needs are getting no education remotely.”

Sandalow explained, “One student we worked with had begun learning to speak, and since the pandemic has literally stopped speaking. And we’re seeing this over and over, where students are actually going backwards without the sustained support of teachers and therapists.”

Sandalow is absolutely right. And across the country, in school districts that are presently depending on distance learning, these kids are simply not getting what they need.

This matter strikes a personal note with my family, as my wife and I have a daughter who suffers from autism spectrum disorder. Last year, at just the age of two, she was enrolled in a northern Virginia public school for hands-on, special education for pre-K. It was just a few hours every day, but from September until March, the difference that was being made was incredible.

We would supplement her school curricula with visits to a local applied behavioral analysis (ABA) therapist who specializes in assisting children with autism with the social, communication and other learning skills she needs so that by the time she is ready for kindergarten, she can at least function. She was just learning to talk. Finally.

And then the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down. Now, she is most certainly regressing, and we fear it could take years to recover her development.

Quite simply, putting a three-year-old child with autism in front of a laptop to listen to her teacher who she desperately needs only talk to her on Zoom is completely inadequate. She needs more attention that only a physical setting can provide. As a stopgap, we’re using the ABA therapy and are looking for more hours now to fill in the gaps.


We know we’re not alone. We have spoken with our daughter’s teacher who says the school is ready to receive the students safely with precautions. Schools in northern Virginia and in states across the country are preparing the classrooms to protect staff with shields, distancing and personal protective equipment, and are weighing options to allow at least the special education students to return, even if the rest of the school remains closed for the time being in response to the pandemic.

In addition, the Trump administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education have all issued guidelines, resources and testimony for states to follow on how to safely reopen.

The sooner the better. Anecdotally, the schools at least in the northern Virginia region sound like they are ready to partially open, but the decision to reopen remains with the school systems at the county level and ultimately with the state, as in other states.

And I would say the same thing applies to all of the non-special education students. They’re not getting what they need either as the system suffers from connectivity issues, attendance problems and the burdens that homeschooling is placing on working families, with women disproportionately being knocked out of the workforce.

How long children are away from the classroom will have years-long impacts on their lives, development and future prosperity. Time is an essential factor here. A Brookings Institution study found that “the cost to the United States in future earnings of four months of lost education is $2.5 trillion—12.7 percent of annual GDP.” Now we are beyond four months of lost education.

Especially when one considers that there has never been an effective coronavirus vaccine produced, the schools may be closed in vain. Not for SARS. Not for MERS. Not for the common cold. And not for COVID-19 — yet.

While there are several candidate vaccines in development, it remains to be seen if any of them will be effective, calling into question what plan schools have in place to reopen should the vaccine fail. One hopes that millions of parents a few months from now when confronted with that potential reality are not left asking what we were waiting for.

Robert Romano is the Vice President of Public Policy at Americans for Limited Government.

Copyright © 2008-2024 Americans for Limited Government