How coronavirus is affecting students with special education needs

Young boy doing speech exercises with special education needs teacher

By Cecilia Mezzanotte

Consultant, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

The current coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis has impacted billions of learners around the world, with school closures affecting around 91% of the world’s student population at the peak of the crisis. All students will feel the impact on their learning, but students from vulnerable backgrounds, including those with special education needs (SEN), are particularly affected.

Whether such students suffer from a learning disability or have a physical impairment, their inclusion in distance learning settings and activities entails additional challenges in an already complex situation. To support them, some countries, such as Finland, countries that were at the initial stage of school closures, arranged individual at-home instruction. Countries with full lockdowns then had to move to online activities.

Risks for students with SEN and practices to support them

To support students with SEN during school closures, schools and teachers need to find inclusive strategies or practices that are, if not good for all, adaptable to all. Students with SEN risk experiencing double penalisation during school closures: access and inclusion.

Students with SEN generally rely on ICT or assistive technology more than their peers, which could constitute an important asset for their transition to distance learning practices. However, their specific needs may prevent them from accessing some of the online modalities that are currently in place. For instance, students with a hearing impairment could be unable to attend live video-classes, and visually impaired students could struggle with homework sent via email or virtual platforms, if it is not provided in an accessible format. However, texts or homework can be rewritten in Braille if the students do not have access to devices with accessibility functions, and remote live captioning can be applied in the video classes for hearing-impaired students. Many countries, such as Italy, Ireland and France, together with other actors, are providing lists of and access to various tools targeting students with special education needs, to ensure their participation in distance learning.

Inclusion can be a challenge since students with SEN may be unable to make the most of the emergency modalities of instruction. For example, students with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) may find it challenging to stay focused on their homework, or to follow a pre-recorded class that does not sufficiently stimulate their attention. For teenagers that struggle with executive functioning, navigating across virtual classrooms for different topics and working through an increasing number of assignments may turn into an overwhelming and unmanageable task. Also, students with dyslexia or dysgraphia may find it difficult to progress on their own or rely on their parents who may not have the time or instruments to support their learning.

In the United States, a group of teachers launched a free homework help hotline for blind or visually impaired students, to help them navigate accessible websites with screen reader software or to tutor them in braille reading and writing. Outside of their classrooms, students with SEN could be missing the additional services that they often receive in school, such as extra support, one-to-one learning time and psychological support. Therefore, in most OECD countries, teaching assistants and special needs teachers are offering online individual support or providing their students with tailored material to compensate for such losses. Without support measures that enable following work in classes or participating in daily activities, these students may experience a loss in their sense of belonging and self-worth, which are fundamental components of inclusion in education.

Mental health support

Being in a confined space for a long time may lead to added stress and conflict in the home, and the risk and fear of becoming ill can intensify stress and anxiety. For individuals that already suffer from a mental disorder, this crisis can exacerbate their symptoms or significantly worsen their well-being. National and international institutions are mobilising their knowledge and expertise to support parents in, for example, explaining the situation to their children with autism, helping them manage a disrupted schedule or their already-existing anxiety.

A holistic approach to inclusive education, involving schools, teachers, counsellors and families will be fundamental to overcoming the losses suffered by students during school closures.

This issue is not exclusive to children with pre-existing mental conditions, as symptoms of anxiety may be experienced by all during this crisis. It may not be straightforward for parents to notice that their children, who might struggle to express their emotions, are feeling anxious or stressed, so experts advise parents to pay attention to signals such as clinginess, excessive tantrums or physical symptoms like stomach aches. To further support students maintain good mental health, various countries have set up phone or online counselling services for young people. For instance, services such as Kids Helpline in Australia and Telefono Azzurro in Italy provide free, private and confidential 24/7 phone and online counselling services.

While these efforts may help mitigate the short-term impacts of this crisis on students with special education needs, more structured and co-ordinated interventions will be necessary in the aftermath. A holistic approach to inclusive education, involving schools, teachers, counsellors, families and relevant stakeholders will be fundamental to overcome the losses suffered by all students, but in particular by the most vulnerable, including students with SEN.

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