Over the past few years, schools have rallied to ease the impact of students’ disrupted academic learning and the broad social, physical, emotional and psychological implications of the pandemic. Districts knew that making slight adjustments wouldn’t cut it, as they were up against some of the biggest learning challenges ever presented. Educators were empowered to rely on technology and reimagine their classrooms through creative and innovative teaching approaches aimed at connecting with students and their strengths.

Many districts witnessed how effective the supports traditionally included under special education services — like providing more one-on-one help and assistance with organizing schoolwork — were for all students.

But in expanding this assistance, districts did not provide additional supports and services to students who need special education — and it shows. The National Center for Education Statistics reported that students with disabilities on average scored 32 points lower in math and 40 points lower in reading than students without disabilities. The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates found that only 18% of students with disabilities had been offered compensatory services through 2021.

It was not difficult to predict that the intersection of the pandemic and the challenges presented by disabilities would amplify the impact of interrupted learning on these students. And now, it should not be hard to envision what will happen to neurodivergent students once neurotypical students begin to more quickly fill in the learning gaps caused by the pandemic.

For students with learning and thinking differences who need special education, the impact of COVID-19 will be chronic even though it feels as though the crisis has passed. It’s never been more urgent for schools to stop focusing on teaching to the middle and, instead, concentrate on the kids with disabilities who consistently get pushed to the bottom. Here’s where schools can start:

First, they should focus on approaches that benefit all learners. Students struggle for different reasons, but implementing response to intervention and multi-tiered systems of support ensures that educators can provide proper academic instruction, as well as social-emotional support, to all kids before they fall behind. Additionally, embracing Universal Design for Learning as a core principle of school culture and a necessary aspect of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives can demonstrate how all students can recover academically and gain confidence at a similar rate. The goal is to use a variety of teaching methods to remove barriers to learning so all students have the same opportunities to succeed.

Read the full article about impact of COVID on special education students by Bob Cunningham at The 74.