As of 2017, about 86 percent of U.S. households with school-aged children have access to the internet. That still leaves millions without, and under the banner of equity, America is arguing about whether to move schooling online as schools shutter to stem the spread of COVID-19.
A major sticking point is not the access gap, but provisions under three federal laws: the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). They were enacted to protect the rights of individuals with disabilities and are designed to ensure that public entities like schools do not discriminate on the basis of disability.
Without a doubt, students with special needs deserve equal access to high quality education. There should be no question that school districts must do everything possible to provide the accommodations required by law to students who need them.
But the paralysis incited by concerns over litigation is harmful not only to students with disabilities, but everyone else. Questions about whether school districts are able to provide equitable education to children with disabilities are halting efforts to offer any education at all. The Superintendent of Philadelphia School District, for instance, has stated that if remote instruction is “not available for all children, we cannot make it available to some.”
On one side of the debate, some district and federal leaders argue that it is not possible to meet the demands of laws protecting students with disabilities in their entirety, and therefore online education must either be canceled or postponed pending waivers from accountability to these laws. Delivering remote education without appropriate accommodations for the approximately 14 percent of students nationwide who require special education could exacerbate inequities and put them at risk of litigation.
On the other side of the debate, disability rights groups like the Education Civil Rights Alliance argue that remote education with appropriate accommodations is possible, and it isn’t necessary to waive any provisions of these laws. School districts, they say, should be accountable for doing everything they can to provide necessary accommodations to students. They suggest that waivers will simply eliminate incentives for school districts to provide education to students with special needs.
A troubling and destructive false dichotomy is fast emerging. There is no reason to believe that education leaders need to throw special education protections out the window in order to offer access to remote education. But it might require flexibility and collaboration between school districts and families with special needs students to map out appropriate plans and make the best of remote learning. To start, for example, both schools and families may need to come to the table for virtual conferences to go over what can be provided to their students during closures—and what can’t.
As this debate rages on, students are missing out on learning. Even as the U.S. Department of Education offers guidance supporting continuity efforts, school districts are wary of proceeding with online and other remote learning options out of concern they will be exposed to litigation. This fear has, for too long, led school leaders to place limits on how it can deliver educational opportunities—rather than expanding them.
Under current federal rules, the state of special education has seen mixed results. Special education students may be getting closer to parity when it comes to access. But they are not learning as well as they could be. According to a report by the American Institutes for Research, just 66 percent of students with disabilities graduate high school, compared to 84 percent overall.
Clearly, the system can be better. But that doesn’t mean that civil rights laws need to be broadly waived, or that special education students cannot participate in remote education. There is a path forward.
Adopting an expansive framework that enables districts to approach the provision of online learning through a “test and refine” paradigm—one in which proposed accommodations are evaluated for whether they’re able to help students better access learning content and improved or replaced until they do—doesn’t mean they have to start from scratch.
Many school districts have already made considerable progress in leveraging online learning to improve accessibility for everyday learning activities. Many digital tools, for example, incorporate accomodations like audio reading support that can be helpful to all students. As teachers learn to leverage such tools in their instruction, they can both meet the needs of some special education students and improve learning for others. Those advances can and should be brought to bear on efforts to ensure that online learning is available to every student.
Other examples of successful online interventions come from the special education community itself. Long facing a critical shortage of therapy providers, aids and other in-person supports, the field has benefitted from innovation that has married the emergent technologies of teletherapy and telehealth with distance learning to provide access to high-quality interventions and services, even when a person cannot be physically available to provide those services.
Not all traditional accommodations may be delivered online. For the families that lack connectivity or devices on which to learn, school districts like Detroit have collaborated with families to provide learning packets directly to their doors. In places like Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, schools bridge the gap by conducting regular check-ins by telephone.
America’s legacy of approaching the provision of special education as a battle to be won does not serve any families well right now, when everyone needs access to high-quality, remote education. But it also doesn’t serve the field in general, and this is an important opportunity to rethink the way that special education is designed and delivered, whether in person or in school. Instead, the focus should turn toward a relentless push for innovation that truly enables all children to access the learning they need to succeed.
The only path forward that aligns the expansive spirit of the law with the unusual demands posed by mass school closures is to offer remote education that incorporates and provides opportunities to build upon the best accommodations available. Education leaders and disability rights advocates must work together on acceptable solutions because every child’s access to education hangs in the balance.