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GUVERCIN: Special education students require extra attention during online schooling

The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has halted all methods of traditional instruction, forcing millions of students to receive the remainder of their education for the school year under virtual conditions. 

While there is a hot debate regarding how effective online instruction is in terms of the students’ academic development and understanding, with some states even considering to make students repeat a year, the group that is most significantly affected by these unexpected changes to instruction are unquestionably students with disabilities. 

There are millions of students who require individual and specialized instruction which is effectively provided through traditional means like learning in the classroom, having one-on-one instruction and doing hands-on work, which are not necessarily required for general education students. 

Schools are a means through which the majority of students with disabilities are able to receive accommodations and support not only in terms of their academics, but also through outlets such as counseling and therapy, which may not be accessible to the some students outside of school. 

There have already been a variety of unexpected difficulties with online instruction for traditional students, including but not limited to, mental and emotional distress, lack of technological literacy, which disrupts navigation of online learning and assignment submission, decreased assistance on behalf of teachers and even increased workload due to shorter instruction. 

For children with disabilities, these challenges are particularly pronounced, especially when parents are not able to provide the at-home assistance they need with technology and schoolwork, which can be easier to handle with traditional students. 

Furthermore, there are a plethora of students who are in general education classrooms who still need special accommodations due to their 504 or Individuals with Disabilities Education Act qualifications, which can at times require them to work with different teachers or learn different lessons than the rest of their peers. This can put a strain not only on the students, but also the parents and teachers who must now figure out ways to implement accommodations. 

There are also students with disabilities who have more severe conditions and require many modifications to their education plans, to the extent where online instruction significantly impacts their ability to interact with instructional practices and meet academic requirements. 

These students are impacted the most due to their needs, and are also one of the populations school districts and educational institutions are currently struggling with the most during this transition to online instruction. Many students have disabilities that impact their speech, sight, hearing and cognitive functioning, which can make it incredibly difficult for parents and teachers to accommodate through virtual instruction. 

There are several actions that are taking place currently in order to assist students with disabilities during these difficult times, which is further supported by on-going emphasis on behalf of local and federal institutions that pronounce the educational rights of these students, who must legally receive all resources that are available to general population students. 

Some of these procedures include arrangement of one-on-one virtual instruction with teachers, extension and modification of lessons and assignments and providing hard-copy assignments that can be later submitted online. 

While these efforts are laudable, especially considering the fact that they were done under unexpected conditions in a quick manner, they are a two-way street, with a key component being parents. Due to the fact that students are no longer able to rely on their teachers, parents are given the huge responsibility to track and monitor their child’s academic progress, and help them with all the extra procedures necessary for virtual instruction. 

This puts a responsibility on school districts and educators to be in constant and effective communication with parents in order to guide and support them in helping their children, especially if they are not technologically fluent themselves. 

Since I am involved in the Rutgers Behavioral Assistant Program, which provides opportunities for Rutgers students to observe and assist children with autism in their classrooms, I am especially aware of how difficult virtual instruction is for students with severe disabilities that impact their verbal and cognitive performance. 

Many of the children I work with require daily one-on-one physical instruction with the help of multiple aides and teachers, and have parents who work full-time and cannot necessarily give them the assistance they need at home. 

In light of such realities, it is paramount that parents and teachers split the responsibility and support each other for the sake of their children, and for school districts to consistently provide resources and accommodations to help these students transition easily and effectively to their new source of instruction. 

Hopefully, we can use this opportunity to develop accessible virtual education systems that can help students continue to receive instruction even under exceptional circumstances. 

Dilara Guvercin is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in psychology and minoring in philosophy. Her column, "The Bigger Picture," runs on alternate Thursdays. 

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