What Is the Impact of the Pandemic on Children with Special Needs?

For the families of children with special needs, COVID-19 presents unique challenges. The advent of the virus caused disruption to daily life on an unprecedented scale, impeding families’ ability to access vital services for their children.

Nevertheless, in response to COVID-19, organizations such as Parents Helping Parents stepped in, providing vital support to parents and caregivers. Here’s what you need to know about the impact of the pandemic on students with disabilities or special needs:

Students requiring special education were especially negatively impacted by COVID-19.

National and regional restrictions implemented to promote social distancing triggered many changes in education. Minor adaptations, such as seating children further apart on the school bus were introduced. However, in some cases major adjustments such as the transition to remote learning practices were also implemented virtually overnight.

Most students have experienced significant disturbance to their daily routines, but for students enrolled in special education programs, the impact has been acute. Leandra Elion, lecturer with the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development, explains that one of the most effective strategies in special needs education is to establish is a structured routine.

This is something that the COVID-19 pandemic obliterated for many children with special needs. In many cases, it is now down to parents and caregivers to establish and maintain routines. Maintaining those and establishing those routines is particularly difficult in the world of COVID-19.

Caregivers of children with special needs have largely struggled through the pandemic.

Suddenly, parents and other caregivers are in charge of encouraging children to engage in a combination of virtual education and in-person teaching that is very different from education pre-COVID 19. Leandra Elion explains that suddenly, parents are playing the roles of teacher, school nurse, recess monitor, and lunch monitor for the first time.

In addition, she says that parents are rapidly having to become researchers, trying out different routines to find out what works for their child. As a result, the pandemic has been particularly hard for parents of children with special needs, placing them in incredibly stressful situations.

Elion’s colleague at Eliot-Pearson, Melinda Macht-Greenberg, is a lecturer and a clinical, developmental, and school psychologist. She teaches courses on assessing children’s educational and mental health needs. Macht-Greenberg points out that parents of children in special education have been consistently and completely overwhelmed. Working parents are now forced to juggle schooling at home, which makes the home/work balance incredibly difficult.

Special education covers a variety of different needs.

Special education supports children who need extra help reading and writing; those with hearing and visual impairments; and students with multiple disabilities. Each student enrolled on a special educational program is provided with their own unique IEP, or Individual Educational Plan. IEPs are effectively legal contracts made between parents and schools, establishing educational goals for the child and delineating how special education services will support them.

In Spring 2020, when schools across America were closed as part of efforts to stem transmission of COVID-19, the federal government announced that there would be no special education waivers. This effectively meant that everything contained in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, including all regulations, services, and timelines, remained in force. Nevertheless, this proved extremely difficult to implement for schools.

In Massachusetts, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Educations decreed that schools could modify IEPs in response to school closures to facilitate remote learning plans. These modifications did not need to be signed off by parents. Many families report significant problems for children enrolled in special education programs, pointing to a lack of online resources.

The pandemic has led to a backlog of IEP evaluations.

By law, IEPs must be rewritten annually. Children are assessed every three years to determine whether they still qualify, with new students evaluated within 30 days of enrollment. However, bowing to unique pressures presented by COVID-19, many schools were forced to postpone special education meetings and evaluations. These has led to a tremendous backlog.

For some children, particularly those with disabilities, remote learning is not always appropriate. For example, 6-year-old Olivia Tan, whose story was covered in The Los Angeles Times, is partially sighted and has heart issues, cognitive delays, and other physical disabilities. Her parents strive to provide some semblance of an education for Olivia. However, without specialist, one-on-one support, she has regressed, losing much of her curiosity.

In California alone, 760,000 children are enrolled in special educational programs. An end to the pandemic cannot come soon enough for hundreds of thousands of families.

In San Jose, California, Parents Helping Parents supports families of children with special needs.

For more than 40 years, Parents Helping Parents has supported families, building a national reputation as a trusted source of information, supporting caregivers, parents, and families, helping build bright futures for children, youth, and adults with special needs. The organization’s website delivers a wealth of information, including additional resources and information formulated in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

With new links continually added, Parents Helping Parents provides a variety of tools, information, and links to third party resources. It provides material on a variety of different issues, divided into 3 separate categories: Public Health, Education and Policy; Home-Based Learning, Recreation and Activities; and Family Health, Wellness and Self-Care.

Nothing is a substitute for the educational and social environment provided by in person education. However, until the pandemic is in the rearview mirror, resources like Parents Helping Parents may help parents and other caregivers who has suddenly found themselves the primary source of education for their children, particularly those with special needs. For more information, visit www.php.com.

About Mark Stevens

Mark Stevens

Based in Menlo Park, California, Mark Stevens is a venture capitalist with three decades of experience investing in the technology industry. Currently, he serves as managing partner of S-Cubed Capital and as a special limited partner of Sequoia Capital.  Continue.