Learning Recovery for Students with IEPs—An Accessible Way to Reverse the COVID Slide

by Mary Pembleton

Student and teacher working together with masks on

Since March 2020, educators and providers have had to roll with the punches in a pretty unprecedented way. From rapid transitions to eLearning platforms to synchronous lessons to hybrid schedules to maintaining a safe in-person environment, they’ve jumped through, over, under, and around all sorts of unfamiliar and unexpected hoops. These acts have been nothing short of heroic, truly, and we think teachers and K-12 staff deserve a month-long vacation at an all-inclusive resort on a gorgeous tropical island somewhere.

But alas, that’s not what teaching is all about. The true reward lies in connection: connecting directly with students, as well as the satisfaction of witnessing academic, social-emotional connections and progress—all of which the pandemic has made a little more difficult.

Which brings us to the next step in this crazy pandemic-learning obstacle course, one that will help address any learning gaps it’s left us to contend with: advocacy.
Mandy Manning, 2018 teacher of the year, knows a little something about the importance of advocating for students. She gave this advice during an interview with the National Education Association:

Sometimes, we have to leave the classroom to get the things we need for our kids, because at the heart of every teacher is our students. At the heart of every decision is what our students need. It’s very comfortable to be in our classrooms. But, just like my pin says right here, ‘Life happens outside your comfort zone.’ We have to be willing to get uncomfortable and face some of that negative messaging that we might receive in order to really make deep impacts on what we know is best for kids.

Now, as we noted earlier, the Covid-19 pandemic has demanded a lot from educators. ImpactEd estimates that 60-65% of teachers’ working hours have increased during the pandemic, including-but-not-limited-to significant increases in workload demand and planning time.

Teacher waving at a screen

But we know that students have been considerably impacted too, and not in equal ways. Absenteeism is up, class grades and math scores have fallen, student motivation, which is so crucial to learning, is down, and we are just starting to understand the social-emotional implications of lockdown stress, illness, and isolation.

Vulnerable populations of students had to contend with additional challenges: many English language learners (ELLs) learned with English-dominated remote learning interfaces and instruction, students with disabilities lost some of the in-person supports they rely on for academic, emotional, and physical well-being, and low-income students struggled with access to internet connectivity and devices.

Experts are concerned about this cumulative learning loss, or the COVID Slide, that’s resulting from prolonged remote or hybrid learning, especially for those learners who’ve been disproportionately impacted. “For every day students are not at school, existing inequities are compounded at a faster rate,” Julie Sonneman and Peter Goss write for the Grattan Institute of Australia.

The good news: help is there for those who ask for it.

Over the course of the last year, the federal government has passed several acts providing funding for K-12 educational institutions. In December 2020, the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSA) was signed into law, which provides nearly four times the funding originally allocated by the CARES Act. Half of that funding will be distributed to state governors, and the other half will go directly to K-12 districts (LEAs) through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER Fund) to the tune of $54.3 billion.

Most recently, Congress passed the American Rescue Plan, under which schools across the country will receive a massive and historic infusion of money. This relief package includes $128 billion for K-12 education, as well as hundreds of billions for state governments to allocate.

The money is intended to address learning loss and technology access specifically for low-income students and students with disabilities. This money will give schools the resources to set up larger-scale initiatives to help students who need it the most. Districts must use at least 20% of the American Rescue Plan money to address learning loss and schools must use this money by October 2023.

Teacher and student in a wheelchair wearing masks in the classroom

The effort required to advocate for students during an already difficult school year for many teachers, providers, and administrators, may feel tremendous. But the students who need the most help recovering from learning loss cannot advocate for it themselves, and without somebody else to do so, the funds that could be used to address these learning gaps and issues may be allocated elsewhere, or tragically go unused, like billions of dollars of CARES Act funding did.

That’s where the preliminary work lies now, upfront—instead of scrambling to catch up later—by securing those funds for the tools and services that would best help learners in need. The right supports can help tackle equity gaps that, if ignored, could result in life-long impacts. For some students, lost educational opportunity has the potential to lead to poverty, even incarceration. Others may be unable to make up skills lost to a year of remote learning without extra help. And it’s important to keep in mind that we are all connected: the wellbeing of one affects the wellbeing of all. We are all in this together, even as some of us are suffering greater losses than others.

Some of the supports that can help mitigate these potentially catastrophic consequences include instructional opportunities to make up for learning loss. Many districts and some states are considering and/or already implementing additional in-person & virtual learning opportunities including summer school, bootcamps, and afterschool programs, with a primary focus on reading, writing, and math. The legislation says that funds may be used to meet “IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities and Education Act) requirements, summer learning and supplemental after school program activities.”

The funds are also meant to be used for technology and software “that aids in regular and substantive educational interaction between students and their classroom instructors including low-income students and children with disabilities, which may include assistive technology or adaptive equipment.”

Student with headphones and the snap&read bar

Accessible technologies play a crucial role in bridging ability and language gaps, making curriculum accessible to students most affected by the pandemic. For example, software like Snap&Read provides reading tools that help struggling students access the curriculum by leveling vocabulary, bridging reading fluency gaps with text-to-speech, organizing content and making connections with study tools and reading guides, and effectively translating web pages for English language learners. The funding also covers programs like Co:Writer, which acts as a virtual writing assistant to help students with cognitive and learning disabilities complete assignments independently through finely tuned predictive text (word prediction), themed topic dictionaries, and speech-to-text capabilities (voice typing), and translation to bridge language barriers when writing. Together these supports can help students catch up and learn more independently.

In terms of how best to go about requesting the tools and educational supplements your students will need to fight the COVID slide, Rick Lavoie, a long time consultant on learning disabilities, suggests collaborating with colleagues, to plan ahead before reaching out to principals or school boards in order to clearly identify problems and present an organized, solutions-focused strategy or tool that’s supported by evidence, and to remain positive in your messaging.

Nothing about a global pandemic is easy, and unfortunately times of crisis tend to exacerbate inequities, and it’s going to take a lot of fight to address them. But for better or for worse, we are all in this together. It was Harriet Tubman who said, “Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”

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