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COVID-19 Closures – The Impact of COVID-19 on Students Served Under IDEA

April 19, 2020

As the media and parents scramble for the latest updates on school closures due to COVID-19, there is a group of children struggling for much more. Every day seven million students are served under IDEA, which equates to about fourteen percent of total public school enrollment (NCES). Children who are in special needs programs require more than tablets and lectures. A variety of services are provided through the school system. Physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech and language therapy, vision therapy, hearing services, social skills training programs, behavior modification programs, and skilled nursing. Imagine all of those supports abruptly halted with no answer as to how or when to remedy the situation.

Let me tell you. Mid-March, even into last week, no one seemed to be planning anything. Or at least officials weren’t having talks about it publically. I think officials and staff are so lost. They didn’t know where to go from here, so they just avoided the topic. I think that was a mistake. I believe parents and families deserve to know that officials are working on their children’s education, and frankly, their well-being. I think that parents would be understanding if there were some updates about how this was being planned along the way—leaving everyone to wonder probably caused some unnecessary stress.

When the outbreak started on the west coast, many districts leaned toward shutting schools for a few days to two weeks with no distance learning option. Doing this allowed for school districts with limited resources to guarantee they weren’t providing some students with a continued education while leaving others behind, including those with special needs. As I search for information, I am finding numerous anecdotal interviews with scared parents asking for guidance, and not a whole lot of clear answers.

This week I have seen a slight shift of focus here in Florida. Our district in Sarasota is hosting webinars to provide resources for families during school closures. The idea of these webinars is to help families gain insight into ways to set up their home learning environments. Families are given strategies designed to assist and support caregivers. Particular focus will be given to emotional regulation to build up the positives in a home learning environment. Schools’ teachers and special education service providers have sent home therapy advice along with school work, but the administration has not been clear about what is required.

Check-ins and “training” from therapists for families at their homes have been more frequent in recent days across the country. Showing parents their child’s daily routines and providing reading materials with resources or packets. Some are even recording themselves in videos to send to parents going over techniques for specialized therapies. Staying in touch with families seems to be the goal of most teachers and therapists. Be there to answer questions and assist. Children, in general, thrive in a stable routine, these kids need the predictability. It is evident that this a complex issue with no “one size fits all” answer in what is already far from a perfect system. These are what everyone is calling “unprecedented” times, and apparently, the rules need not apply.

On March 27, 2020, the President passed the “Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act,” allowing “limited flexibility” regarding waivers the Secretary considers necessary to be enacted into law under IDEA. Probably in part due to some districts opting not to provide online learning at all for fear they could not provide equal services to students with disabilities. We know when something isn’t measurable, the government aims to do the minimum, or less if they can get away with it. Also, when does this expire? When school starts? The next school year after school starts? I am sure officials will want a grace period to get back on track as well. Planning needs to include those who are considered high risk due to underlying medical conditions as well, and their remote learning plans will likely be extended when schools reopen.

Of course, there are other burdens to bear within this crisis that come directly from school closures. Parents must suddenly add “schoolteacher” to their list of duties, and already worried caregivers can quickly become frustrated. Recently officials have directed attention to figuring out how to feed a large number of children in need as well since the National School Lunch Program provides meals for 29.7 million children daily (NSLP). That’s a lot of hungry kids with parents who are juggling so much already. All of these foreseeable factors negatively affect children’s mental health.

I will, however, be anxious to see what innovations may come out of this. An influx of medical breakthroughs, inventions, and ways to produce essential equipment has emerged as a result of the Coronavirus outbreak as they should as we move forward from this pandemic. In recent years, robots have been designed and used to work with students on enhancing SEL skills. But all too often, an opportunity to evolve our mental health system is missed. A light should shine on updated ways to bring quality care and education to our kids with special needs in the education system.


National School Lunch Program. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/child-nutrition-programs/national-school-lunch-program/

National Center for Education Statistics. (2019). Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cgg.asp

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About the Author

Haley Vernoy

Haley Vernoy is currently attending the University of South Florida pursuing a Master of Science degree program in Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health. Most of Haley’s career has been as a clinical RN working with Open Heart and Cardiac ICU patients, and now she works in Orthopedics. She is continuing on for her Master’s in Behavioral Science with the hopes to become an advocate for children with mental health related disorders in her community. Haley will be working on examining how the 21st Century Cures Act has impacted the mental health arena, more specifically the current function of the Interdepartmental Serious Mental Illness Coordinating Committee.

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