Reflecting Towards Success
Remote education and supporting elementary and secondary students with disabilities during the COVID-19 Pandemic
Understanding how to best address the needs of students with disabilities during extended school building closures is a challenging task. Students with disabilities in elementary and secondary schools include those who have an individualized education program (IEP) under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and students who are not IDEA-eligible but who have disabilities under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (Title II) and are receiving services as outlined in the Section 504 regulations (often referred to as a Section 504 Plan).
Education leaders may want to start by developing clear plans of action for remote learning that meet the needs of their students with disabilities and their families and can be implemented in a consistent and supportive manner by school staff.
To help develop and execute a plan, we have composed two sets of reflection questions. The first set will help state and district leaders think about how to organize a learning strategy to meet the needs of students with disabilities and their families. The second set offers reflection questions around organizing the relevant members of the school system to effectively carry out the plans.
Note: We have chosen to use “you” in all of our reflection questions for two reasons: 1) to increase readability, and 2) to inspire all who read this post to lead from where they are.
First Set of Reflection Questions: Selecting components of your remote learning strategy
Selecting materials used for instruction:
- As you select educational learning materials, do you have a clear vision for how they will work to support learners in meeting their individualized learning goals? (Greer, Rowland, & Smith, 2014).
- Do your lessons and materials offer simple, clear instructions for assignments that give flexibility and choice to students without sacrificing rigor? Do these choices consider issues like internet connectivity, access to assistive technology devices and services required to effectively use the devices, required accessibility of the materials for students with disabilities, relevance for students with varied background knowledge, variety among student interests, and home learning environment? (CAST, 2018).
Accessing tools and supports:
- Do students with disabilities have access to either the same devices, tools, and assistive technology services that they were provided during in-class instruction as reflected in their individualized education programs (IEPs), or if applicable Section 504 plans, or an equally effective substitute that will appropriately meet their individual learning needs¹?
- Are parents and teachers supported with appropriate resources to help them access their child’s learning platforms, troubleshoot technology, or find relevant supplementary materials? (Borup, Chambers, & Stimson, 2017).
- How responsive is the State or district in responding to requests from the student or parent for assistance with troubleshooting technology or demonstrating how to use the technology to facilitate remote learning?
- Does the State or district have a procedure for evaluating the accessibility of digital materials and technologies selected for teacher and student use while a remote learning period is taking place? (CAST, 2020).
Supporting parents and families:
- Are you clearly communicating updates and expectations with parents and families? What methods of communication are being used?
- Are your communication efforts coordinated and balanced so that parents have the information they need without being overwhelmed?
- Do you use a variety of methods to gather input from families and provide them with support? (Survey, phone call, email or LMS blasts, open office hours, and regular check-ins)
- Is the information communicated to parents in a language they can understand or in an accessible alternate format if the parent has a disability?
- Is your system flexible to adapt to input from parents so that supports can be adjusted accordingly?
Second Set of Reflection Questions: Organizing a team
The Center on Inclusive Technology & Education Systems (CITES) has recently released 4 Cs, or principles, for district and school leaders to use to guide their remote learning plans². In this post, we would like to leverage the 4 Cs — Coordination, Collaboration, Communication, and Continuity — to provide a series of reflection questions that LEA, district and state leaders can use in pulling together a team (coordination team) to develop, implement and evaluate their remote learning plans.
We hope that these principles will be helpful no matter where you are in your process of planning. For example, if you have already developed a plan, we hope this will help you in carrying out the effective implementation of that plan.
Determine what expertise you need on a coordination team and who has it:
- Which members of your school system may be included on a coordinated team to ensure that every student with a disability has access to the digital materials and technologies they need while learning from home? Relevant roles might include administration, general education staff, special education staff, educational technology staff, information technology staff, assistive technology staff, and parents and guardians.
- What kinds of guidelines and protocols, for use across the system, will help to ensure that students with disabilities who use assistive technology and need accessible materials and technologies have what they need to make progress in whatever remote learning plan is in use? Who on the team will help ensure that learning plans are developed with consideration of students with disabilities? Are roles and responsibilities for executing the guidelines and protocols clearly documented and understood by all members of the coordination team?
- If you are a small district how will you recruit the additional expertise you need? Does your state provide access to experts in areas where you do not have full-time personnel or the staff with the necessary skills?
Determine how people will work together with and within the coordination team:
- Do all the members of the network of personnel in the district understand how they will work together to implement the guidelines and protocols? How are their roles and responsibilities interrelated in ways that feed efficiency?
- What is the role of classroom teachers in implementing the remote learning plan? What is their troubleshooting role? What kinds of supports will they receive in their role?
- How are the anticipated and emergent needs of families of students with disabilities factored into the plan for collaboration?
- How are members ensuring that the goals and objectives in the IEPs or, if applicable, Section 504 Plans, of students with disabilities are being met?
- Who are the additional collaborators at the local, regional, and state level that can help to ensure continuity of access to technology for students with disabilities learning at home? How are they factored into the plan for collaboration?
Determine how communication will happen with and within the coordination team:
- How routinely will the coordination team convene? To what extent can synchronous (where the entire team meets together) meetings be minimized by having a robust and efficient team communication system in place?
- Are communication guidelines and protocols documented and understood by district personnel, students, and parents/guardians? Specifically, do personnel, students, and families know whom to contact under what circumstances, and how?
- What are the tools and forms of communication that will be used? Will these vary by the urgency of an issue? Are effective, alternate forms of communications available if needed to communicate with a parent or guardian with a disability?
- Do the communication guidelines and protocols include plans to ensure the needs of students with disabilities are being met?
Determine how to maintain and leverage the use of existing resources, minimize the introduction of new materials and technologies, and carry forward data and lessons learned so that students can be successful when learning remotely:
- In the shift from traditional classroom instruction to remote learning, to what extent will teachers, students, and families be able to use the same platforms, apps, and tools? That is, what effectively transfers from one learning and communication environment to the other? What does not?
- Under what conditions will a new material or technology be introduced to teachers, students, and families during a period of remote learning?
- Under what conditions will a teacher be able to suggest a new material or technology for student and/or family use during a period of remote learning?
- If new materials or technologies are introduced, who will ensure the new materials and technologies continue to meet the needs of students with disabilities and their families?
- What data will be collected from teachers, students, and families about what is working and not working related to the materials and technologies in use during a period of remote learning? How will this information be used to inform decisions related to their future use?
We understand that crafting a high-quality action plan means planning to meet the needs of your student population. While both sets of reflection questions are focused on students with disabilities, we hope they will assist in determining issues to target and how to bring people together to address them to effectively support the remote learning experiences of your students with disabilities.
 An eligible student with a disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) , or a student with a disability under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504), or Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, as amended, has a legal right to necessary devices, tools, and assistive technology services consistent with the applicable federal law in order to facilitate the student’s remote learning. The information is being offered to provide helpful background information, but it should not be viewed as creating any rights or imposing any requirements beyond those required under applicable law and regulations.
 This content was developed under a grant from the US Department of Education. However, the contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the US Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal Government. The information is being offered to provide helpful background information, but it should not be viewed as creating any rights or imposing any requirements beyond those required under applicable law and regulations.
Basham, J. D., Stahl, W., Ortiz, K. R., Rice, M. F., & Smith, S. J. (2015). Equity matters: Digital and online learning for students with disabilities.
Borup, J., Chambers, C. B., Stimson, R. (2017). Helping online students be successful: Parental engagement. Lansing, MI: Michigan Virtual University. Retrieved from https://mvlri.org/research/publications/helpingonline-students-be-successful-parental-engagement/
CAST (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. Retrieved from http://udlguidelines.cast.org
CAST (2020). Guidance for SEA and LEA Purchasing Agents. Retrieved from http://aem.cast.org/navigating/guidance-sea-lea-purchasing.html
The Center on Inclusive Technology & Education Systems (2020). Supporting Accessibility in Distance Education: Practices for Teachers. Retrieved from http://aem.cast.org/about/events/2020/03/supporting-accessibility-in-distance-education.html
Greer, D., Rowland, A. L., & Smith, S. J. (2014). Critical considerations for teaching students with disabilities in online environments. Teaching Exceptional Children, 46(5), 79–91.
Smith, S. J., & Basham, J. D. (2014). Designing online learning opportunities for students with disabilities. Teaching Exceptional Children, 46(5), 127–137.
We understand that this post does not contain all the answers you need to navigate this time. You can find additional resources at:
- The National Center on Accessible Educational Materials (AEM Center)
- The Center on Inclusive Technology and Education Systems (CITES)
- The National Center on Systemic Improvement (NCSI)
- The Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center (ECTA)
- The Center on Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS)
Thanks to our guest authors Cynthia Curry & Dr. Tara Courchaine.
Cynthia Curry is Director of the National Center on Accessible Educational Materials (AEM Center) and the Center on Inclusive Technology & Education Systems (CITES) at CAST. She works with stakeholders across early learning, K-12, postsecondary, families, and curriculum developers to increase the availability and use of accessible materials and related technologies for individuals with disabilities. Cynthia brings diverse career experiences to her role, including positions as an engineer, middle and high school science teacher, statewide technology integration mentor for the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, teacher educator at the University of Southern Maine, and instructional designer and disability services coordinator at the University of New England.
Dr. Tara Courchaine is an Education Specialist with the Research-to-Practice Division in the Office of Special Education Programs at the U.S. Department of Education and is a member of the Elementary Middle School Team. As part of her role she works to develop and write discretionary grant priorities, manage grant competitions and provide oversight and feedback to the projects that result from the priorities. Since joining OSEP her portfolio areas include technology and accessibility, English Language Learners with and without disabilities, disproportionate representation in special education and multi-tiered systems of support.
Kevin Johnstun is an Education Program Specialist in the Office of Educational Technology leading work on accessibility and assistive technology. He has also collaborated with offices across the Department on programs related to national educational technology policy, teacher professional development, and open educational resources. Kevin holds a M.S. in Instructional Psychology and Technology and a B.A. in Philosophy from Brigham Young University. There he worked on projects related to cultural interactions between students and teachers and efforts to create collaborative spaces where students and teachers learn together. He also was a middle school English language arts teacher.
The information in this posting is intended to provide helpful tips for consideration during the COVID-19 emergency in helping to address the needs of disabled students through remote learning. It is not intended to define or identify the rights of disabled students and their parents under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, or Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act; nor does it define the responsibilities of State and local agencies or education officials. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the positions or policies of the U.S. Department of Education. No official endorsement by the U.S. Department of Education of any publication, product, commodity, service or enterprise mentioned in this publication is intended or should be inferred. For the reader’s convenience, this posting contains examples of potentially useful information about and from outside organizations. Inclusion of such information does not constitute an endorsement by the Department or a preference for these examples as compared with others that might be presented.
Department of Education information about COVID-19 is available at: https://www.ed.gov/coronavirus.