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Delivering safe, quality schooling during the pandemic has reinvigorated fundamental moral questions about our society’s commitment to K-12 students with disabilities.
Approximately 14% of school children — 7.1 million students — qualify for special education services. Under federal law, these students are entitled to a free, appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment possible. They are also entitled to individualized education plans (IEPs), which are binding agreements that indicate annual educational goals and supports.
Early data suggests that students with IEPs are disproportionately burdened by the ways schools have adapted to the pandemic. Many parents have reported that their children with IEPs have received no support, and most report that their children are not receiving what they are entitled to.
Experts worry that regression associated with the disrupted school year will unduly affect these students, short and long term.
While legal entitlements remain the same as pre-COVID, the question of how to deliver a fair education looms large. What does educational justice demand when resources are strapped, and when students are disproportionately vulnerable?
Students with disabilities are morally entitled to educational opportunities that promote their living flourishing lives, just like every other student. Federal law reflects this moral principle. To the extent that students with disabilities are more vulnerable, the educational provision essential to their well-being should be prioritized.
Soon after school closures in the spring, districts in Kentucky and Washington state took this principle to what seemed an extreme conclusion. They opted out of schooling entirely, on the grounds that online instruction would not meet the needs of their students with disabilities.
Presumably, these districts feared legal repercussions for failing to deliver on students’ entitlements. But a moral ideal supports their move, too. Educating some kids during the pandemic while knowingly leaving others with disabilities behind comes with substantial ethical costs.
For many students with IEPs, a publicly provided education is uniquely critical for mastering basic skills and capacities, like those related to communication (speech), mobility and sociality. Schools are also important locations to be in community with non-disabled peers, social integration bringing benefits to all.
When schooling jeopardizes access to essential goods for only some students, that expresses a lack of recognition of the moral and political equality of those left out. It also imperils the long term social standing of those left behind, and impoverishes the sense of community that is possible for all.
Does this justify withholding educational goods from all children, as districts early in the pandemic did?
Not necessarily. Even in the spring, some children with IEPs were able to reap educational goods. Precisely because education can uniquely offer fundamental benefits to kids with disabilities, those who could still receive those benefits are harmed when education is withheld.
Nor is a commitment to equality best served by withholding educational opportunities. As we have seen time and time again, those who are more advantaged will find a way to support their kids. Teachers and parents from wealthy districts that withheld education in the spring moved quickly to fill the gaps, while their less advantaged peers couldn’t follow suit. In such circumstances, leveling down educational provision doesn’t even help achieve equality; individuals exercising their privilege only widens already problematic gaps.
So how ought we to proceed? First, follow through on federal entitlements to these children. The Supporting Children with Disabilities During COVID-19 Act would provide additional monetary support to schools in order to meet IEP goals. Introduced three months ago, the bill is currently awaiting review.
Second, commit to inclusive teaching practices that benefit everyone. Remote activities developed in the spring for example — virtual field trips, streaming live performances — enabled participation from students with physical, emotional or behavioral challenges who were otherwise unable to travel. Rather than requiring more resources, inclusive teaching primarily requires thinking differently about educational provision.
Third, prioritize vulnerable students. We should resist utilitarian calculations about education during this pandemic, which would have districts pursue interventions that bring the greatest bang for their buck regardless of the effects on the most disadvantaged. Several Alachua County programs exemplify prioritization: the school bus Wi-Fi program; deploying family liaisons to support students with IEPs; permitting choice between virtual and brick-and-mortar schooling.
As the pandemic continues to upend schooling and conditions evolve, ethical solutions will prioritize society’s most vulnerable children, often those with disabilities.
Jaime Ahlberg is associate professor of philosophy at the University of Florida. Aimee Clesi is a UF undergraduate majoring in philosophy and history. This piece is part of recurring columns from UF’s Education Policy Research Center (https://education.ufl.edu/eprc/).