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Special Ed During School Closures: It’s Not About the Academics

Apollo walking on a bridge.

Last week I posted in a special needs Facebook group asking if anyone else was concerned about the effect school closures would have on their special needs kids. I was bombarded with positive messages about how the kids will do fine without academics for a few weeks. I wholly agree with this. In fact, I said as much in this post. But here’s the thing, for many special ed students, academics aren’t the issue at all.

Many Interventions and Therapies Take Place at School

First day of school 2016.

Here in the US, it is school districts that deliver many essential therapies to kids past the age of three. Once kids age out of early intervention (Birth to Three) but still need services they are moved to the local school district and given an IEP.

After years (literally) of fighting persuading the school to give our son more services, we finally got him switched to Lifeskills in December 2019. Correction, at the end of December 2019. Then it was winter break, then a few personal issues, and then school being closed, he’s only had a total of a couple of weeks of Lifeskills. His adaptive skills are extremely low. He is 17 and we don’t have a whole lot of time to work on these. Yes, he can legally stay in school until he is 21, but it has been such a struggle since he began high school, I’m not pinning my hopes on that. I fear that this temporary closure, while necessary, is going to have a long-term impact on him.

What difference will a few months make over the span of a lifetime? Well, because we have had such a struggle getting services, he is coming to the game quite late, so yes, a few missed months will make a difference for him.

No, Working on the Skills at Home is Not an Option

Crevasse walking in New Zealand. School Closures mean a loss of needed therapy for special ed students.
Photo credit Chuck

I won’t go into the details, but trust me when I say no, I can’t just work on these skills with him at home. As it turns out, there is a reason teachers go to school for years to learn to teach special ed. Already the state is being given plenty of leeway when it comes to IEP’s during this period of school cancellations.

From the Office of the Superintendent here in Washington, ” As stated above, these services will look different based on safety needs, student need, parent engagement, staffing configurations, regional need, and district systems. Additionally, there is not an expectation that IEP services would be delivered exactly as the IEP states, and providing supports such as a one to one paraeducator may not be needed at home or may not be feasible based on staffing configurations.”

We have fought tooth and nail to try to get his IEP in place and fought harder yet to get his teachers to follow it. Now, it may not matter at all.

Coronavirus Bill Allows DeVos to Waive Part of Special Ed

Lessons in teaching children compassion

The entire purpose of IDEA* children with disabilities a free and appropriate education. Now there is a very real threat that schools won’t have to educate special ed students during this period. What does this mean for our kids? For my son, it means the loss of vital skills. Social skills, life skills, the ability to do things that are uncomfortable, the ability to learn new self-care skills.

*The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a law that makes available a free appropriate public education to eligible children with disabilities throughout the nation and ensures special education and related services to those children.

And for a less complicated kid, it still means unmeasurable loss. My daughter who also has a learning disability is now expected to learn online while watching videos a couple of times a week. Clearly, this is not going to do the job.

Compassion When There Are No Answers

School closures mean a loss of essential therapies for special ed students.

So what is the solution? I have no idea. I know this was unexpected and unpredictable. I don’t have the answers. I am just writing this to help you understand that for many families this is not just a loss of academics. It is a loss of much-needed therapy for our kids.

Why should strangers care about my son and his special needs? This issue should matter to everyone because in a very short time my son will be a legal adult. He will be in the community. You may see him at the grocery store, or library. He doesn’t just “disappear” when he ages out of school. You will be interacting with him. Your kids will be interacting with him.

So I beg of you, if you hear someone “freaking out” about school closures, there may very well be more to the picture than meets the eye. Yes, you can still love your kids, enjoy spending time with them, homeschool them, and still mourn the loss of essential therapy.



  1. Kristen

    Hi Renee,
    Thank you for sharing that post. I hope you are all staying as well as possible in this time.
    Right now its a struggle not become overwhelmed or develop tunnel vision. I must admit it is helpful to hear that we are not alone in struggles like yours.
    Same boat. We’ve finally, FINALLY, after 11 years of weekly, sometimes even daily, battles to find assistance for my special needs daughter (15.5 yrs old), we’ve finally made some headway and managed to get her school, therapists, and other services on the same page.
    Though I’m extremely relieved and grateful that we have gotten there, we’d only just started to make these changes, so we’re now stuck in this sort of limbo where her IEP won’t be enforced given the current difficulties that the teachers and health services are facing.
    Given how long this progress has taken and that things have been so disrupted (understandably), I genuinely fear that this intervention has come too late and she won’t have a chance to learn the vital skills that she needs before she heads out into the world. These services are so much harder to access as an adult.
    I understand horrible things are happening right now, and we count our blessings every day that we are safe and healthy. We have such wonderful, hard working health care staff putting their lives and families second to the needs of others, and we are in awe of these people, but this is also my daughter’s reality. She is not as resilient and she is not as easily able to adapt. It will be that much harder for people like her and I’m the person that has to fight for her, so I need to keep this in mind.
    Thank you for allowing me to share my thoughts.

  2. Sid

    I’m an elementary teacher and I have been thinking about these issues of special education since the closures began. It is so complicated and at first many districts were afraid to teach at all for fear of violating FAPE. With the current stay at home orders, I have not seen a good solution for offering certain special education services. There are a lot things you just can’t do online (not to mention not all students have internet access). Teachers want to be at school with their students, and even general education can’t reach all the same needs online. I know myself and all of my colleagues can’t stop thinking about our students and how they are doing at home. It is a difficult time and things are changing daily. Educators advocate for children like your son everyday and that hasn’t stopped. I’m keeping you and your family in my thoughts.

  3. Nana Jo

    Renee, I think you would be interested to read this article about how the devastating effect of school closures is affecting children on the autism spectrum here in BC, Canada. This subject greatly interests me because, although she is not yet old enough to go to school, my 3 year old granddaughter was diagnosed with autism last December.

    I hope you and your family have a lovely Easter. My prayers are with you.

  4. Melissa

    Thank you for sharing this! I am experiencing some of the same frustrations. My son does not receive therapy at school but he does have an IEP. He has a co-teacher in every class and has accommodations and modifications. However, with online learning I have been told to just have him do the regular ed work. It is not gong well and his anxiety is crippling. I don’t know how to solve the problem but I do know that what we have been asked to do is not working.

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