Wendy Collison, Marcela Delgado, Aaron Foster, Karla Phillips-Krivickas

Throughout this blog series, we’ve discussed how the pandemic has brought to light the inequities in education among different segments of the population. Students with disabilities face unique and varying challenges, even in the best of circumstances. With remote instruction, some of these students are losing ground on the progress they’ve made socially, emotionally, and academically, while having to adapt to all-new learning models. Experts serving postsecondary students with disabilities, and in the area of special education discuss how issues of accessibility and the switch to online learning has impacted this population of students.  

Wendy Collison is Director of Exceptional Student Services at Phoenix Union High School District.

Marcela Delgado is Director of Operations and Strategic Affairs, SALT Center at the University of Arizona.

Aaron Foster is Director of Consulting and Education at RI International.

Karla Phillips-Krivickas is Senior Director for KnowledgeWorks and the parent of a child with a disability.

What has been the role of the pandemic in highlighting educational inequities for students with disabilities? 

Wendy Collison: There is something remarkable about the specially-designed instruction that special education teachers deliver to help address academic skills or behaviors. Certain aspects of that instruction are really hard to provide virtually, like physical therapy, braille instruction, even aspects of reading, writing, or mathematics. Despite a lot of effort, creativity, resourcefulness, and collaboration with families and outside agencies, there are just some services that we have not been able to adequately address. We know that some students are regressing and will require compensatory services.. The opportunity for students with disabilities to interact with students without disabilities through inclusive programs like PEOPLE PE, Best Buddies  and Special Olympics has also been further inhibited.

Marcela Delgado: The pandemic is threatening to negatively impact students with disabilities in more ways than one. Depending on the severity of the disability, the required levels and types of support and intervention can vary drastically. The challenges instructors have faced in the transition to remote learning have been significant.  We remain hopeful that the continued professional development offered to instructors through the University of Arizona will increase the likelihood that instructional methods will support all learners and, in doing so, lessen the educational inequities facing students with disabilities.

Aaron Foster: It’s shown that we as a society have not moved forward fast enough to make competing in this new technology world accessible to everybody. Wi-Fi could be available for everyone very easily, and it’s always been put off because people want to debate about it. I think we’re finally making headway in the last six months, but we still have so far to go, especially for Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) with disabilities. This is huge.  

Karla Phillips-Krivickas: The pandemic has raised awareness of the educational inequities that have long existed for students with disabilities, and exacerbated them. People are seeing it like never before. One of the issues facing schools is that none of the requirements under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) have been waived for COVID. Therefore, they still have to meet all of the procedural requirements and deadlines, which is tough. And the issue of doing some student evaluations online is something that schools are really struggling with. Many of the components of these evaluations are really hard to do over Zoom. Almost impossible. Even the idea of virtual IEPs is a huge source of frustration in the disability community. 

What have been the main challenges students with disabilities in your community have faced as a result of the pandemic?

Wendy Collison: Some of the biggest challenges for students are the lack of executive functioning skills that most developing teenagers don’t have, compounded with a disability. These students have a hard time with task initiation, planning organization, time management, motivation, and resiliency, and now they are learning remotely. The social-emotional aspects — anxiety, depression, social isolation — are also tough. When we made the switch to remote learning, many of our students did not have access to technology or consistent Wi-Fi. While we now provide a device to each student, some of our students still do not get stable internet support. Students are also missing out on the inferential learning that happens inherently in a traditional classroom as they often keep their cameras off and may or may not respond in the ‘chat.’ We must continue to evolve in having truly inclusive and accessible formats.

Marcela Delgado: Adjusting to the new modalities of learning at the University of Arizona has been challenging and intimidating for many of our students. They are working under a completely new structure, which can include issues with adapting to new technology, delayed response times in communicating with instructors, distractions in their new physical spaces, and the loss of community and inability to study in-person with peers. In addition, the unpredictability of the situation can undermine students’ confidence — already challenged by being away from home and familial support.

Aaron Foster: Our students are mainly people who live with serious mental illness and/or substance use, or are in recovery. These people have come from a place of marginalization and stigmatization, and they’re scraping things together just to survive. Now, in order to participate in class, they have to have access to and knowledge about computers and the internet. It’s a huge barrier. On the other end of the spectrum, we have students who live with anxiety or social phobias who had difficulty getting to class before, and now they come to classes all the time virtually because they feel safe in their home environment. 

Karla Phillips-Krivickas: Schools are clearly better equipped than they were in March, but one part that we cannot solve for is the social-emotional interaction that our kids need. And for kids like my daughter, who has Down syndrome, it’s tragic. She’s already developmentally delayed, and not having those peer role models right now is having a detrimental effect on her speech and social progression. 

What are you and your education colleagues talking about now that was previously not discussed in education? 

Wendy Collison: Not only are the ways students engage different right now, but the ways and means to address growth, grading practices, and achievement look different. I think we’ve always had conversations around grief and loss, about healthy choices, healthy responsibilities, healthy habits. But it’s significantly compounded in terms of the depth and the understanding of what’s really going on in the kids’ lives. We have seen an amazing amount of collaboration, creativity and resourcefulness to keep students engaged: YouTube videos, positive posts on social media, and even contests that student clubs and groups put together and stream. Our PXU Expo —an in-person event for future freshmen— was fully virtual this year. And, we had more online enrollments for the 2021-2022 school year! Relationships and connections are critical, now more than ever.

Marcela Delgado: The unique challenges of learning to navigate a university environment are magnified when a student also has learning or attention challenges, whether that be from increased technological demands, remote instruction, or feelings of isolation/confusion. We are particularly focused on working individually with students, ensuring they have the tools they need for academic success, paying particular attention to their mental health. 

Aaron Foster: The conversation has shifted around how we continue to offer apprenticeships, internships, and hands-on skill building in a virtual world. How do you change what has been the system for decades? This is the way it’s done, and now we are thrust into a whole new system and way of doing things. Now we have to figure out how to maintain competency-based learning objectives, how to proctor tests, and how to keep students safe.

Karla Phillips-Krivickas: The work I’ve been focusing on nationally since all of this has started is providing schools flexibility to meet the needs of students. Governors signed executive orders and state boards provided waivers to get us through the start of it all, and now we’re hoping that states can begin to shift and see these as long-term changes and not just temporary fixes.

In the shift to remote learning, what have been the outcomes for students with disabilities? 

Wendy Collison: We know for neurotypical kids, the academic regression is real, and we know that for students with disabilities, it’s even harder. We are recognizing that the student achievement gap is increasing, and student engagement in the online setting is a challenge to maintain. The ability to support oral language development, peer-to-peer interaction, and literacy skills has been significantly hampered in a remote setting. At the same time, we have also seen that some students are actually interacting at a greater rate and growing in confidence. It further emphasizes why the “I” in the Individualized Education Program (IEP) matters. I do feel that everything we’ve learned since March will forever change teaching and learning. We are far more equipped now to close the digital divide and teach our kids the skills they are going to need for career, college, and life. 

Marcela Delgado: Most of the support services on campus are 100% virtual. Working and navigating these challenges will help build technological proficiency and confidence. We have also heard from students that they feel more focused and make the most of their time when they are in virtual meetings because they don’t have to worry about hurrying around campus. Many of our students are feeling encouraged about the flexibility in accessing on-demand support like tutoring, educational technology, and psychological services.

Aaron Foster: Outcomes aren’t the purview of the student, they are the purview of the school and the instructors. Outcomes have only shifted as much as we have shifted our ability to serve students in a new way. For example, we are teaching students how to communicate with other people. Some of my instructors didn’t believe they could teach human interaction in a virtual environment, which just put limits on which student outcomes were possible. Now, I’m proud to say every single one of those instructors has turned around — and students are more excited about learning, too.

Karla Phillips-Krivickas: If you have little ones or children with disabilities, it’s not remote learning, it’s parent-facilitated learning. Someone has to be there, next to them. One of the interesting outcomes of the whole journey over these past 6 months is that parents have gotten a bird’s eye view of school that they never had before. On the one hand, we dramatically appreciate teachers all the more. But also, I think we’re seeing more clearly the problems that we didn’t know existed. 

Who is inspiring you in this challenging time and why? 

Wendy Collison: Our teachers are inspiring me every day. Some teachers fought the technology at first and are now so amazing when you see them online. They come to life in a whole different way. They’re really stretching their bandwidth. They’re working tireless hours to come up with any way to connect with kids. My sole focus and my goal is to help them be the best teachers they can be and have the resources they need to do their work and connect with our kids.      

Marcela Delgado: The resiliency we have seen from students and their supportive families has been very encouraging. The unpredictability faced by our entire community can be overwhelming and daunting. When you see students work through their emotional and academic challenges because they tap into their support systems, it is very powerful. We’ve also been inspired by our donors and partners who have recognized the unique challenges SALT Center students are facing right now and are providing the resources to ensure that we can extend our reach. 

Aaron Foster: My teams and the students; I get so inspired when I virtually enter a classroom. There is just so much going on. We had this vision in our head that it was going to be difficult to engage with students and it’s not. That inspires me. 

Karla Phillips-Krivickas: Every mom I know. It’s been hard for all of us to try to juggle work and parenting, and now to try and facilitate our children’s learning. Every mom is a superhero right now in different ways.   

What do you think will be the best way for Arizona to achieve our 60 percent postsecondary attainment goal given our new reality? 

Wendy Collison: We’re really trying to teach our students — all of them, but especially students with disabilities — the skills of a Phoenix Union graduate: to be flexible and adaptable, to understand the value of communication and teamwork, and to really persevere through the difficult times. I think if we’re able to build our students up, to teach those soft skills along with academic skills, and then to expand our business community partnerships to be more inclusive and to work alongside us, that would help. We continue to be an innovative district with a portfolio of schools and programs inclusive of students with disabilities. Students can enter our START program at Metro Tech, experience authentic work-based learning in the CityScape towers as part of our Upward and Onward program, take a college course, or continue with our Transitioning Learners to College Program at Phoenix College. By continuing to work with our students to understand their hopes and dreams, engage parents as partners, and work with our schools and business communities, we will get there!

Marcela Delgado: I want to be optimistic that the economy in Arizona will recover in the next few years. A stronger focus on workforce and business development in conjunction with offering more affordable postsecondary education options could move the needle in the right direction. Our students amaze us every day — there’s no doubt that the goal can be reached if we maintain high expectations, provide the kind of support students need, and then step back and watch them shine.

Aaron Foster: There are two ways to look at people when they have extreme challenges with mental health or substance use. You can see them as needing to be fixed and know that statistics say only about 80 percent of them will recover. Or, you can think that while the probability of recovery is 80 percent, they have a 100 percent possibility of achieving that. You can see this person as a whole, I say. I think if we all keep in mind that reaching the goal is 100 percent possible, then yes, we will achieve the goal.

Karla Phillips-Krivickas: For the system as a whole, I think Arizona could do well to start thinking past the pandemic. Start thinking about how we can build a system that’s resilient and can weather storms. We need to start thinking past just this immediate crisis and about what schools need for the future.