Cover: How Are Teachers Educating Students with Disabilities During the Pandemic?

How Are Teachers Educating Students with Disabilities During the Pandemic?

Published Apr 8, 2021

by Laura Stelitano, Christine Mulhern, Katie Feistel, Heather Gomez-Bendaña

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Research Questions

  1. Are schools offering alternative instructional arrangements for SWD?
  2. Are teachers able to communicate with SWD in small groups or one on one, regardless of instructional arrangement?
  3. When SWD are learning remotely, are they completing their assignments?
  4. Are teachers confident that they can meet the needs of SWD when teaching remotely?

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has led to major disruptions in the way that teachers educate students with disabilities (SWD). Throughout the pandemic, disabilities rights advocates, teachers, families, and lawmakers have expressed concern that SWD would be disproportionately affected by school closures and the shift to remote learning.

To explore these concerns, researchers analyzed teachers' reports of how they are educating SWD during the COVID-19 pandemic using a nationally representative survey of more than 1,579 teachers in the RAND American Teacher Panel, which was fielded from mid-September to mid-October 2020. This Data Note provides insights into teachers' experiences educating SWD in early fall 2020, exploring how teachers’ experiences varied by instructional arrangements (e.g., remote, hybrid, in-person) and school characteristics.

Key Findings

  • Nearly two in five teachers said that their schools offered alternative instructional arrangements for SWD during the pandemic, but this was less common in majority non-White and high-poverty schools.
  • Teachers in remote arrangements were equally likely, if not more likely, to report weekly one-on-one and small-group communication with SWD as teachers in hybrid and in-person arrangements, but reported significantly lower assignment completion for SWD.
  • Most teachers were less confident in their capacity to meet the requirements of their students’ Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) when teaching remotely.


  • School, district, and state leaders should prioritize and expand opportunities for in-person learning for SWD, including summer, after-school, and Extended School Year programs. Providing the services and supports that SWD need in remote settings has proven difficult for teachers, regardless of school and student demographics, and is likely to result in even steeper learning losses. Given these difficulties and the likelihood of learning losses, SWD should continue to be prioritized for in-person learning. State and local education agencies should plan for how they will prioritize and expand in-person learning opportunities for SWD with American Rescue Plan funding.
  • School, district, and state leaders should invest in training and preparation systems to enhance the capacity of all teachers to effectively educate SWD. Many teachers felt inadequately prepared to educate SWD remotely and uphold their IEP requirements during the pandemic. Findings speak to the need for more training for teachers on how to educate SWD remotely, but likely reflect a need for better training and preparation for educating SWD in general.
  • School and district leaders must invest in and employ strategies to accelerate learning for SWD with funding support from the federal government. Evidence-based strategies and interventions to accelerate learning are hallmarks of effective special education. Federally sponsored resources provide easy-to-use tools for connecting school leaders to proven strategies and interventions for accelerating learning for SWD.

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Funding for this independent research was provided by gifts from RAND supporters and income from operations. The research was conducted by RAND Education and Labor.

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