Reimagining the Way We Serve Students with Disabilities

Helpful resources on how to support students with diverse needs during a pandemic

By EducationCounsel & Marshall Street Initiatives at Summit Public Schools

In January 2020, Marshall Street at Summit Public Schools, a member of the BELE Network, and several collaborators launched a multi-year Continuous Improvement Initiative focused on making dramatic gains for students with disabilities. When the COVID crisis struck, Marshall’s school partners voiced concerns about maintaining high-quality support for students with disabilities in a distance learning environment. In response, the Marshall team produced a wealth of research-based practitioner guides with adapted guidance and strategies for ensuring all students, particularly students with disabilities, would be well supported in our new learning contexts. The guides have been shared with a community of 10 charter schools that serve more than 75,000 students around the country. The initiative is providing guidelines around setting up virtual accommodations and modifications, ensuring connectivity of all students, and back-to-school transitions for students with disabilities.

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These resources are especially important for educators, administrators, and parents who are grappling with how to best serve students with disabilities during this time of distance learning. The U.S. Department of Education has issued guidance that holds firm on the federal requirements under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) to provide students with disabilities with a free, appropriate public education (FAPE), while also recognizing the need to protect the safety of students and educators. In subsequent guidance, acknowledging that that services may look different than in the past, the Department calls on parents, educators, and administrators to “collaborate creatively” to ensure that the needs of students with disabilities are being met. However, there is no blueprint for what that looks like, so resources like The Continuous Improvement Initiative are critical to shaping the way in which students with disabilities are supported.

This initiative has helped leadership adapt to unprecedented circumstances and can help administrators and teachers prepare for a new school year that will, more likely than not, include more distance learning. We’re not going back to normal any time soon, and Marshall Street is making sure school leaders are equipped with the tools and resources necessary to serve students and support teachers and parents.

Below are four key learnings that emerged from the pilot of the initiative:

  • Getting small group instruction right is important. The transition to virtual school has many Special Educators wondering how to provide students Individualized Education Program (IEP) service minutes in a virtual setting. Small group instruction is vital to ensuring that our diverse learners do not fall further behind in the unexpected transition to remote learning.
  • Ensuring that service to students with disabilities remains high-quality is paramount to achieving equity and inclusion. These services include accommodations and modifications, virtual IEP meetings, and progress monitoring. Learning loss as a result of COVID-19 is affecting all students and is especially concerning for our students already positioned furthest from opportunity.
  • Support for students at this time must acknowledge the whole child. When disability intersects with a lack of access to food, economic insecurity, or mental health needs, inequities are even further exacerbated. We also know that low-income Black, and Latinx students are experiencing this crisis in different, more acute ways. We must take a holistic approach to support all students.
  • We are all partners in change. Each of us has a responsibility to build an inclusive, accessible education ecosystem for our children; we cannot rely on the ingenuity of individual educators or families to overcome the challenges exacerbated by COVID-19. There is no substitute for an aligned school ecosystem, with all members working together for a common cause. This crisis is, above all, an opportunity for us to revisit some ground truths about education and equity and how we ⁠ — as educators, as parents, as community members — can redesign the system for true inclusion and equality of opportunity.

As policymakers at all levels of the system (school, district, state, and federal) are making decisions that impact learning environments in the coming months related to school re-opening, distance learning, and school funding, it is critical that they do so with equity at the center so that students with disabilities are front of mind, instead of being left behind. This approach will benefit all students. Parents, educators, and school and district leaders must come together and use their voices to ensure such equity-centered decision making.

Working together, we can bridge the artificial gap between schooling and parenting; between individual contributors and systemwide goals; between those furthest from opportunity and those with the greatest power and responsibility. The Continuous Improvement Initiative and the BELE Framework are providing teachers and administrators with tools to create equitable learning environments. These will ensure all students have multiple layers of support no matter where they find themselves: in normal times, in times of crisis, and in the world we choose to build after COVID-19.

Marshall Street Initiatives at Summit Public Schools is a coalition of educators working to systematically improve opportunities for students across the country. We target locally felt, globally evident problems in America’s public education system so that every student has the opportunity to pursue a fulfilled life. We invite you to explore our work in K-12 public education at www.marshall.org.

EducationCounsel is a mission-based consulting organization that combines its significant experience in policy, strategy, law, and advocacy to develop and drive policy initiatives — on the local, state, and national levels — to work toward closing opportunity gaps and improving education outcomes for all students. Learn more about their work at EducationCounsel.com

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We are committed to creating learning environments that equitably support every student — especially students of color and low-income students. belenetwork.org

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