This past summer, a Pew Research Center report revealed that the number of students in the American special education system has doubled over the past four decades, from about 3.6 million during the 1976-77 school year to approximately 7.3 million during the 2021-22 school year. Schools are struggling to find enough special educators to serve this increasing population, especially amid the rise in mental health challenges among students, including those with disabilities.

We know that a subset of neurodivergent students do better in more flexible educational settings. COVID closures showed us as much. Because while the pandemic was devastating for students with disabilities who needed in-person, tactile assistance, some children, including many on the autism spectrum, thrived outside of traditional school spaces. For these students, virtual learning provided a welcome reprieve from challenging social environments, resulting in improved academic performance and lower stress.

Serving these students post-pandemic means engaging community organizations to create a flexible education ecosystem, powered by traditional instruction in school and subject matter experts outside of it.

The Brookings Institution described a similar arrangement that they call ”Powered-up Schools” in a 2020 report outlining ways that public education could emerge from the pandemic stronger than before. They draw inspiration from the community schools movement, which advocates for public schools that provide wrap-around services to meet the needs of students, families, and neighborhoods.

Meanwhile in the U.K., students in some districts are engaged in what’s called “flexi-schooling.” This system allows a child to be a fully funded public school student while spending part of the week homeschooled and/or attending off-site educational programs.

School systems stateside could offer something similar. We know it’s possible. COVID-19, after all, forced us to get creative in our delivery of educational services. We must carry that forward with strategies that honor students’ individual learning styles, integrate community resources, and optimize teachers’ instructional strengths.

It’s too late for my son’s generation, but we can meet the needs of students with disabilities, including those who are more successful in a hybrid design, by breaking away from models that haven’t served many students well and haven’t changed in decades. We should replace them with more nimble solutions that don’t take years to actualize. In schools, like in workplaces, we learned to pivot quickly when COVID gave us no choice; it’s time to embrace those lessons and build upon them.

Read the full article about education for neurodivergent students by Amy Mackin at Chalkbeat.