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51 million American kids have lost 60 days in school – that’s more than 3 billion school days. About 15% of them have disabilities and receive special education. Quick math: If these kids with disabilities average 5-10 hours per week of specialized services, the hours lost might range from 400 million to a billion hours.

These aren’t ordinary hours, but hours of individualized service from special education teachers, speech-language pathologists, occupational and physical therapists, psychologists, social workers, teachers of the visually impaired, and so on. Students with disabilities were more hurt than their peers by distance learning.

And these hours can’t be “made up” by simply adding days to the school year, even if school resumed exactly as it left off. There are countless issues to resolve in public education right now. But focusing on three pillars of education, we can understand the scope of the challenge.

The pillars are assessment, instruction, and implementation. Without assessment we don’t know what kids know and can’t measure growth. Instruction must be individualized based on disability and needs. And carrying out individualized plans is the practice behind theory.

How Will We Assess Students’ Knowledge And Growth?

Assessing students is going to be difficult. We don’t just measure academic levels and growth, but also social, emotional, and behavioral. We measure the kids with two types of assessments: criterion-referenced and norm-referenced.

Criterion-referenced assessment means meeting a criteria: for example, the ability to add two-digit numbers with regrouping (carrying). These standards are 13-year projections of academic growth, and they are usually tied to grade levels. These are also used to understand how far “behind” a child is in relation to standards – an important factor in identifying learning disability. How meaningful will these standards be given the loss of time and other related effects of closure? These standards aren’t something that can just be recalibrated back by three months.

Norm-referenced assessment means measuring kids in comparison to their peers. It’s used to assess everything from intelligence and language to social skills, anxiety and depression, attention and hyperactivity, and self-care skills. Norms tell us what is average. They’re developed through long-term, painstaking research. And you can take the norms that applied in February and throw them right out, because there’s going to be a new normal in September – and it’s going to be anything but normal.

We’ll be serving kids who are all over the map compared to each other, and to themselves. Some had many social opportunities, some had none. Some did all their math, others none. Some did all their reading, but no writing. It will be interesting to see the effect on attention spans and hyperactivity; on anxiety. If we use pre-closure norms to help identify anxiety, we’ll be comparing these kids to kids who never experienced, and aren’t returning from, coronavirus closures. And some degree of increased anxiety should now be viewed as natural and normal – not only in apprehension about returning but, for example, over-reporting of physical illness.

Assessment problems will be compounded by regression. Regression occurs every summer and means that kids come back knowing less than they did in June. This regression for regular education students is usually at least one month of learning. They leave with mid-June brains and return with Mid-may brains – in this case, mid-February. Regression is often more severe in students with educational disabilities, due to attention and memory problems, greater need for regular rote practice, and lack of positive behavior reinforcement systems.

How Will We Serve Them?

Expect the possibility of blended learning – alternating periods of in-person school and distance learning. Both settings will pose a host of problems, given new public health regulations.

Ongoing monitoring of service quality by administrators will be different. Monitoring student learning will be harder, and it’s an essential component of dynamic, responsive teaching. Providing related services will face countless other hurdles: How do you teach articulation or emotional perception with face masks? How do you provide consistent physical and occupational therapy to students who are available through a computer screen?

Providing individualized instruction often relies on grouping students with similar needs by ability level. This won’t be as feasible in distance learning due to difficulty scheduling and providing attention.

Accommodations are another major element of individualized education – things like extended time, behavior management, transition support, eliminating physical/visual distractions. Last but not least, most teachers and service providers rely on their relationships, charisma, and love to reach these kids. These in-person skills are what coax a reluctant child to perform. These intangibles also rely on tremendous consistency to develop trust and learning – consistency that may no longer exist.

The Difference Between Knowing What To Do, And Doing It

Once solutions to these problems are proposed, how will we bridge the gap between theory and practice? It’s always been hard to translate research and theory into real classrooms. This translation is how “evidence-based” becomes “tried and true” – a process of learning for educators. Guidance from the state has been slow and vague to this point.

Guidance from the federal government has been non-existent – not surprising given the U.S. Secretary of Education has spent her life working to eliminate public schools. As a result, schools will be building this new ship as it flies, which is no way to have a safe and happy journey. And we know safety and happiness are pre-requisites to learning.

These are just a handful of the challenges ahead. Each hints at a host of problems that are interrelated and complex. It can be daunting to consider. Luckily, educators are dauntless. Most embrace this Sisyphean reality. Knowing the work is immeasurable helps them to maximize the love and care they give.

There’s also a philosophy that views problems as opportunities. It has never resonated so clearly as now. What’s in front of us now is an unprecedented opportunity to rethink public education in ways that are less revision and more reinvention. It will take vision, courage, and leadership from the state and district administrators. It will take dauntless commitment and open-mindedness from educators.

But there is always a way forward. We can always keep learning.

Philip Medeiros is a school psychologist and advocate for students with educational disabilities. He can be reached at philmedeiros@gmail.com

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