What Do 3,263 Parents Think about Special Education During COVID-19 School Closures?
by Diane Willcutts, LLC
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In collaboration with Wrightslaw, I developed an anonymous parent survey to better understand what was happening with the education of children with disabilities after schools closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Respondents learned about the survey through the Wrightslaw newsletter, social media, and direct email.
A total of 3,263 parents throughout the U.S. responded to the survey between April 22 and April 30, 2020. At the time of the study, most school buildings had been closed for more than a month. Respondents were from 49 states and the District of Columbia.
Parents had many thoughts and ideas about their children's special education during school closure. In addition to responding to 11 multiple-choice questions, respondents wrote nearly 10,000 comments.
Overall, parents reported being fine with virtual meetings. Ninety-five percent of survey participants nationwide stated that if their school district requested a virtual IEP meeting, they would be willing to attend.
Of parents who said they knew their state's position on virtual IEP meetings, 83% reported that their state encouraged districts to convene virtual IEP meetings. Thirty-two percent of parents said they had requested a virtual IEP meeting during school closure.
Nationally, 79% of parents reported that districts agreed to their requests for virtual IEP meetings. The exception was Connecticut, where only 34% of parents reported that their districts agreed to requested virtual IEP meetings.
Fifty-two percent of all families stated that they wanted to convene a virtual IEP meeting prior to the end of June 2020.
Provision of Special Education Programs
Only 69% of parents reported that districts were providing special education during school closure.
However, of the 69% who said "yes" (their districts were providing special education), many wrote that their child was receiving minimal services or an amount far less than what was in the child's IEP.
One parent wrote that her child had previously received 10 hours a week of instruction but was now receiving 45 minutes a week.
Others who said "yes" reported that their district sent home materials that the parents were expected to implement. Others reported that "special education" consisted solely of weekly check-ins with the teacher.
In contrast, few parents reported that their child was receiving synchronous instruction with the teacher at levels that the parents felt were appropriate.
Only 38% of parents overall reported that their child was receiving any synchronous, real-time instruction from school staff.
Most families reported that their children were receiving one or more of the following for special education:
Forty-four percent of families reported that their children were receiving synchronous online therapies, such as speech/language, occupational therapy, and counseling.
- 38% paper packets sent home,
- 58% independent learning on the computer, and/or
- 67% check-ins with a teacher.
Parent Assessment of Distance Learning
Only 20% of all families reported that distance learning was going well.
However, sixty-four percent of families who reported that their children were receiving synchronous instruction reported that distance learning was going well.
Thirty-six percent of families whose children were receiving asynchronous learning through packets and/or independent online learning reported that distance learning was going well. Eight percent of families who reported receiving no special education services felt distance learning was going well.
Only eight percent of families felt their children were making progress during distance learning, while 49% reported that their children were regressing.
Distance Learning: Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Instruction
Distance or online education can be divided into two categories: synchronous and asynchronous instruction. With synchronous instruction, students learn at the same time through activities like attending a lecture or lab. With asynchronous instruction, students learn material at different times and in different locations.
This survey found substantial differences between the responses of parents whose children were receiving real-time, synchronous instruction and parents whose children were receiving only asynchronous "instruction."
Twenty-nine percent of parents whose children received synchronous instruction reported that their child was regressing vs. 46% of parents whose children received only asynchronous "instruction."
As identified through qualitative data, there was a significant range of service times among students receiving synchronous instruction. Some parents reported that their children were receiving the full amount of time in the child's IEP. Many others reported that their child was receiving a small fraction of the time in the IEP.
Although the survey did not collect quantitative data on the amount of time for synchronous instruction, it's possible that this factor may be correlated with parents' perceptions about progress/regression and their overall satisfaction with services. Satisfaction levels may also vary by the severity of the child's disability, a factor that was referenced in the comments.
Many parents reported concerns about minimal to no direct communication with their children's teachers. Others reported excellent communication from teachers, and one noted that school staff were just "one text away."
Thirty-nine percent of parents expressed concern that they did not have enough time to support their children's distance learning.
Parent's Suggestions to Improve Distance Learning
While many parents expressed a belief that school staff were doing the best they could, they had concerns and offered suggestions about how school staff can do a better job.
The largest number of parent comments were requests for more teacher-led, synchronous instruction and therapies through platforms like Zoom and Google Meet.
Parents reported that their children needed interactive (synchronous) learning. Many requested 1:1 time with the teacher and related services providers. Others requested classes in small groups or traditional sized classes.
Many parents expressed dissatisfaction with pre-recorded lessons. Parents also advised that they were not qualified or prepared to take on the teacher's€™ roles.
Many parents requested an increased amount of service time, comparable to the time in the IEP.
Many requested better communication with their child's teachers and staff. Some parents reported that teachers and staff were doing a great job with this.
Some parents reported their child needed school-provided technology, as there was only one computer for the household and/or inadequate internet connectivity.
Several families of children with severe disabilities stated that their children could benefit only from in-person programming. A few parents discussed having in-person therapies and instruction, either one:one in-home or at school or in small, social-distanced small groups.
A number of parents requested supervised live video chats to provide students with social opportunities.
Some parents expressed concern that work was not sufficiently modified. Others reported that materials were not well-organized. Some families felt their child was getting "busy work."
Parents reported that they and their children's teachers need training on the technology/platforms being used. Parents also recommended that teachers receive training in strategies for effective distance learning.
Parents requested parent coaching so they can better support their children.
Some families reported wanting less work and more flexibility with assignments.
A few parents noted a need for more funding for additional teachers and technology to enable students to access learning.
This article summarizes the responses by over 3,000 parents in an April 2020 survey that sought to obtain a clearer understanding of the education of children with disabilities after COVID-19 closed schools in the United States. The respondents were from 49 states and the District of Columbia.
The survey elicited answers to questions about IEP meetings, the provision of special education services, parents' assessments of distance learning, and parents' suggestions about ways to improve distance learning. Participants also submitted nearly 10,000 comments.
It is important to note that there was a range of responses from parents, demonstrating that there is no one-size-fits all or "best" way to educate all students with disabilities while schools are closed.
It is critical for families and districts to individualize programming -- in content and format -- to meet each child's needs. It is also necessary to take into consideration each family's ability to support distance learning.
The child's team members need to be creative and compassionate as they trouble-shoot obstacles to the child's ability to access an appropriate special education program.
Thank you to Piper Paul, Amelia Campbell, Lexi Paul, Eden Schumer, Jose Morales-Thomason, Camille Serrano, and Max Montoya for their hard work in helping to analyze this data.
For more information about this survey, please contact:
Education Advocacy, LLC
846 Farmington Avenue, Suite 10
West Hartford, CT 06119
Diane.willcutts | at | gmail.com