Student engaged in distance learning from home. He wears headphones and is writing. There is a laptop computer in front of him.

As patchwork re-opening plans unfold in schools across the country, one thing is clear when it comes to students with learning challenges: They are at great risk of falling further behind.

Consider a student whose family immigrated to the United States and is struggling to master English. Or another with significant cognitive disabilities. Or another with autism, whose only social interactions had been at school.  

“There are many, many issues of equity out there today,” said Sheryl Lazarus, director of the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) and TIES Center at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Community Integration. “For huge numbers of students, including students with disabilities and English learners, the last several months have been very difficult. Gaps in learning may be increasing, and as a nation we need to know if gaps are disproportionately affecting some groups of students.” 

On several fronts, NCEO and key partners are stepping into that gap, providing distance-learning support for schools that are still operating remotely, as well as those beginning to reopen or using a hybrid model, and providing guidance to ensure student testing is appropriate and fair. 

The TIES Center, for example, has issued nearly two dozen online articles on distance-learning modules in recent months. TIES is a national technical assistance partnership, led by NCEO, for engaging K-8 students with the most significant cognitive disabilities in their grade-level curriculum in inclusive classrooms.

“When students are not in classrooms, building relationships takes even more intentional planning,” one TIES Center article begins. It goes on to offer tips for helping students with and without disabilities to get to know each other, such as designing identity maps. 

TIES and NCEO are developing a video series featuring real-life families sharing how they are working with their child with disabilities and with teachers during the pandemic. The National Center on Deaf-Blindness is assisting with developing these videos, which will be launched soon. 

Much of the online and video content will be useful even when schools fully reopen, said Terri Vandercook, assistant director of the TIES Center. 

“It will enhance collaboration between general and special educators in support of effective instruction, as well as enhance collaboration between home and school,” she said.  “You can use a lot of these strategies in school or in a virtual environment, because student priorities and needs don’t change based on where the student is receiving the education.” 

Likewise, a project affiliated with NCEO, the Improving Instruction for English Learners Through Improved Accessibility Decisions project, has launched audio guides in English, Chinese, Arabic, Spanish, and Vietnamese that explain accessibility features and accommodations, and how parents can effectively advocate for their students to receive the right ones.

NCEO is also working to help states, districts, and schools to think through issues related to assessment, despite the challenges of the pandemic. In a Sept. 3 letter, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos alerted state school officials that statewide testing for accountability, waived last year, would not be waived this school year. 

“In this time when it is unclear whether all students have the opportunity to learn, it is important to have data on student performance to be able to look at equity issues across different groups of students,” Lazarus said. NCEO published a brief on formative assessments PDF in May that offers strategies for distance-learning environments.

Lazarus and colleagues Kristin Liu and Kathy Strunk last month organized and hosted a webinar series for the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Education on the inclusion of all students in statewide assessments, while lowering the number of students who take alternative assessments.

“Having a child in alternative assessments starts them down a path that can follow them their whole life,” Lazarus said. “When kids are inappropriately placed, that’s a huge decision that’s been made about their future, so it is critical that good decisions are made. NCEO provides technical assistance to states to help them develop appropriate participation guidelines, resources, and training.”