The Challenges of Educating Students with Disabilities and English Learners During COVID-19

Latest results from American Institutes for Research survey describe how the pandemic changed teaching and learning and how districts responded

Arlington, VA – Public education’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has changed teaching and learning in unprecedented ways this year. The closure of school buildings and the sudden shift to virtual learning last spring created many challenges for school districts in how they serve all students, including those with disabilities and those who are English learners.

New results from an American Institutes for Research (AIR) survey examine how school districts responded to COVID-19 and the differences in that response based on certain community characteristics, such as income, size and community setting (rural vs. urban). The new results also outline the challenges that school districts faced in meeting the needs of students with disabilities and English learners and how educators worked to provide support. The results from AIR’s National Survey of Public Education’s Response to COVID-19 show that:

  • Districts varied in how they moved to remote education in the pandemic’s early months, including in how much time students were expected to spend on instructional activities and whether students received live, virtual instruction or worked mainly on physical materials, like paper packets.
  • Most districts, regardless of their poverty level or setting, reported that it was more challenging to comply with federal special education laws and provide appropriate accommodations and services for students with disabilities. However, the responses also show that many educators around the country used different approaches to try to meet student needs.
  • Teachers in rural districts received less instructional guidance from their districts on meeting with English learners virtually than teachers in urban districts. Additionally, districts with a lower percentage of English learners provided less instructional guidance compared to districts with a higher percentage.

“These survey results demonstrate that the coronavirus pandemic upended teaching and learning for some of the nation’s most vulnerable students, but it also showed a commitment by teachers, staff, and school leaders to provide support,” said Michael Garet, AIR vice president and Institute Fellow, who is leading the survey project. “Understanding the size and scope of this disruption can help educators and policymakers better support students as the pandemic persists and better recover learning loss once schools return to more normal operations.”

Three new reports and an interactive data tool that explores the complete set of survey data are available on the AIR website. The reports are:

Remote Learning

The rapid spread of COVID-19 last March required school districts across the country to close their buildings and rapidly shift millions of students to remote learning. The survey results show variation in how remote learning looked in different types of districts. For instance:

  • The amount of time students were expected to work on instructional activities each day varied widely in grades K-5, with 29 percent of districts expecting less than two hours, 32 percent expecting between two and three hours, and about 15 percent expecting students to spend four hours or more on instructional activities.
  • Live, virtual classes were a primary part of the remote learning strategy in 56 percent of low-poverty districts, but only in 39 percent of high-poverty districts. Physical learning materials, such as paper packets, were used more frequently as a primary part of learning in high-poverty districts (48 percent) than in low-poverty districts (16 percent).

Special Education

Most districts reported that the coronavirus pandemic made it more difficult to meet the needs of students with disabilities and comply with requirements of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which guides special education in public schools. For instance:

  • Seventy-three percent of districts said that after COVID-19 hit, it was more difficult to provide appropriate instructional accommodations for students with disabilities, and 82 percent said it was more difficult to provide hands-on accommodations and services.
  • Fifty-seven percent of districts said it was more difficult to engage families for help with the requirements of a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP), which outlines the goals for students with disabilities, and the supports and accommodations they should receive to meet those goals.

While most districts faced challenges, there were differences reported among high- and low-poverty districts. For instance, 45 percent of high-poverty districts said it was more difficult after COVID-19 to comply with IEP development and renewal, compared to 32 percent of respondents from low-poverty districts.

While acknowledging it was more difficult to provide specially designed instruction, accommodations and supports, districts also shared some of the steps they took to meet the needs of students. Several districts used teletherapy to remotely provide counseling and speech therapy. In an open-ended response, a district leader wrote that some physical, occupational and speech therapists “made videos for therapy, showing kids (and parents) how to do certain activities and movements,” while another district leader wrote that “some direct instruction was done with staff visiting homes and doing porch teaching.”

Another district shared that teachers used phone calls, texts and video chats to provide support to students. They wrote: “The challenges were substantial, but our staff did everything that they could to meet the needs of our students. Our staff put in hours beyond normal hours to reach individual student needs.”

English Learners

Districts also reported challenges in meeting the needs of English learner students during spring 2020 school closures. While most districts reported providing support and resources to teachers who serve English learners, there were differences based on the location of the district (rural vs. urban) and the percentage of English learner students they served. For instance:

  • Fifty-four percent of rural districts required teachers to meet virtually with English learners compared to 79 percent of urban districts. 
  • Sixty percent of rural districts provided instructional materials in Spanish, compared to 76 percent of urban districts.
  • Seventy-three percent of districts with a low percentage of English learners provided Spanish language materials, compared to 87 percent of districts with a high percentage of English learners.

About the Survey

The National Survey of Public Education’s Response to COVID-19 is an AIR-funded initiative designed to increase understanding of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on public education and share insights and ideas as many students continue to learn remotely, either fully or partially online.

Respondents were asked to provide answers to questions about a number of key topics, including the timing of school closures due to COVID-19; challenges and approaches to distance learning; supporting students with disabilities and English learners; district policies and requirements; staffing and human resources; and health, well-being and safety. The survey also elicited open-ended responses, where leaders shared specific information about actions their districts took to support students.

This survey was funded through AIR’s Equity Initiatives program, which invests in mission-focused projects that explore challenges and develop and implement solutions to create a more equitable world.

About AIR
Established in 1946, the American Institutes for Research (AIR) is a nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts behavioral and social science research and delivers technical assistance both domestically and internationally in the areas of education, health and the workforce. AIR’s work is driven by its mission to generate and use rigorous evidence that contributes to a better, more equitable world. With headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, AIR has offices across the U.S. and abroad. For more information, visit