How the pandemic impacted education for children with disabilities

A look at what the pandemic and its many changes meant for the education of children with disabilities, presented at the virtual 2021 American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference & Exhibition.

Life radically changed for children because of the pandemic, with school being one of the biggest changes. Although all children struggled with the shift, children with disabilities faced additional challenges. At the virtual 2021 American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference & Exhibition, Eric Q. Tridas, member of the National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities based in St. Petersburg, Florida, looked at where education was before the pandemic, what happened because of the pandemic, and what should be done now

Tridas noted that education is built on 2 things, skill and content. In the early years of school, from pre-K to the 3rd grade, the focus of school is on skills like reading, writing, and basic math. Those skills are then used to help with the content side of education, giving students the tools necessary to read and write about topics such as science and literature. Before the pandemic, children with disabilities were as a group attaining lower academic achievement and faced gaps in opportunities for academic success and attaining goals. Many children in the group were involved in remediation that took them away from general education and the chance to learn new advanced skills, which further widened gaps. However, they were able to meet the same academic standards as their peers if they were given needed services and supports as well as instruction that was high quality.

As a result of the pandemic, nearly 50% of children around the world were still experiencing a partial or full school closure in 2021. Unsurprisingly, these closures exacerbated achievement gaps for children with disabilities and schools with a majority of students of color also faced significant gaps. A key reason was that many school districts didn’t have set plans with many not requiring tracking of academic progress or even whether children were attending. Mental health also faced challenges with children facing relapses or exacerbation of ongoing mental health challenges. Depression and suicidality also saw sharp increases. A study asking about changes in children’s behavior during the pandemic found that 77.5% weren’t sleeping as many hours as before; 58.9% were consuming more processed foods; 83.7% were doing less physical activity; and 92.9% had an increase in screentime. Even now with most schools back to in-person classes, the issues aren’t going way. With many teachers becoming ill with COVID-19 and a lack of substitutes, many children are finding themselves in school gymnasiums or auditoriums with no educational materials at all.

When focusing on bringing children up to academic requirements, schools should focus on both educational and social/emotional needs for students. They should also ensure that students do actually catch up. An accelerated learning program can get students caught up by focusing on essential concepts needed to attain grade level standards; personalizing instruction to play to a student’s strengths; using a child’s interests to get engagement; and providing small group instruction. Small group instruction, in particular, is important with a program involving just 50 hours per semester leading 2.5 years worth of math growth in just 1 year. To build social and emotional health, schools should:

  • Maintain structure and routine
  • Enforce rules of conduct
  • Provide a safe environment
  • Give opportunities to engage in physical activity
  • Promote access to mental health service
  • Create a school-wide plan to tackle depression and suicidality

To help these children, pediatricians should be ready to:

  • Provide information about accelerated instruction to families
  • Monitor/screen for depression and anxiety, particularly in older children
  • Refer for cognitive behavior therapy when appropriate
  • Work with schools to establish plans for addressing mental health concerns

Reference

Tridas E. Impact of school interruption on children with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic: compensatory and recovery educational services. American Academy of Pediatrics 2021 National Conference & Exhibition; virtual. Accessed October 11, 2021.