Op-Ed: Online Special Ed—a Failure in the Making

As a special educator for 40 years and a grandmother of a child with dyslexia, I am struggling with the navigation of school in the age of coronavirus.

In March, when California schools sent students home to learn virtually, a shockwave of panic was set into motion for families of children with special needs.

While distance learning poses a plethora of problems for families of general education students, the situation is compounded for students with disabilities. Overnight, children were at home for school, oftentimes in their bedrooms, without the direct instruction from a classroom teacher.

For students with disabilities this posed an insurmountable challenge.

Routine, consistency and specialized instruction from a credentialed teacher are the cornerstones of a special education student’s needs in a learning environment. Special education teachers are the critical players in the education of a student with disabilities.

They develop individualized education plans for each student, design specialized instruction based on the specific needs of the student and deliver face-to-face direct instruction for their students.

In some cases, special ed teachers and their assistants provide instruction and support in physically demanding tasks, such as toileting, feeding and mobility.

All of this came to a screeching halt when the coronavirus closed the school doors throughout our state. Suddenly, parents were thrust into the role of teacher, assistant, tutor and behavior manager.

In California, particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area, most parents work full time. This has created an unprecedented burden on families as they attempt to negotiate the care, needs and education of their children.

This does not even begin to account for the stress upon families and students with special needs as they face the daily frustration of sitting in front of a computer screen without a teacher in the room to provide the specialized instruction, guidance, redirection and support so vital to the education of these children.

As a professor of special education, I am overwhelmed with the potential long-term repercussions of this pandemic on our most vulnerable children. I have witnessed first-hand the decay in learning and the impact on my grandson’s academic growth since March of this year when learning moved online.

Academic progress and learning are a hard-fought battle for students with disabilities. Removing the teacher and learners from the classroom robs special education students of their access to an education. The online experiment has failed for our special education students. At this point, most of the information on students with disabilities in California is anecdotal or based on annual special education assessments, however even these indicators point to a learning regression.

While I am very aware and concerned about the risks to school personnel, especially teachers, with a premature move to reopen schools, there was a stipulation for students with disabilities that was put into effect in August 2020 from the California Department of Public Health (CDPH). The CDPH guidelines support “in-person targeted, specialized support such as small group learning for students with disabilities and district or school “hubs” for distance learning and childcare.”

As an educator, advocate and grandparent, I believe we need to collaborate at a statewide level with the governor’s office, the superintendent of instruction, teacher and union representatives, and families to plan for a safe re-entry into cohort, small group, one-to-one instruction or school “hubs” for students with disabilities in California.

I would encourage our school districts, principals and educators to get informed. Begin by reading the guidelines established by the California Department of Public Health for providing one-to-one or small group instruction for students with disabilities.

I also recommend contacting Gov. Gavin Newsom and/or California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond and request action to initiate steps to provide face-to-face one-to-one or small group instruction or school “hubs” for students with disabilities under the guidelines established by the California Department of Public Health.

In the meantime, teachers and parents need to be better prepared for the difficult times. There are numerous (and sometimes free) programs set up to support online distance learning training, such as Parents: Supporting Learning During the Covid-19 Pandemic and Parents Helping Parents.

Jennifer Madigan is a professor emerita at San Jose State University. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside. Send op-ed pitches to [email protected].


  1. If you can’t afford to raise kids then don’t have them in the first place. That sounds cruel but kids really need a dad that has a decent job to pay for the house, mom stays home and raises the kids. The kids grow up in a single family home and not stuffed in a 1BR apartment.

    That’s America.

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful article with solutions and next steps. As a fellow educator and school leader in the Bay Area, I appreciate your advocacy of our most vulnerable students. We are lucky to have educators like you who are pushing us to think boldly and urgently about our students who are most at risk for learning loss and the long term impact on students. Knowing that incredible teams of special educators are moving mountains to do what they can with what they have to support all the students they work withgives me hope. Please stay encouraged. Thank you for sharing this reality with our community in behalf of families and students…our neighbors and friends…who are demonstrating strength and weathering this difficult time without the supports they deserve. Thank you.

  3. This is a very sad reality, even here in Hawaii schools are still adjusting to some online learning, but still lots of students are at home. On top of that is that our tourist based economy has flat-lined. I have a feeling most of our students will end up being at least a year behind. Thank you Dr. Madigan for your courage to write this as it is the current reality. The silver lining is that due to the economy and loss of jobs, more people seem to be enrolling in teacher education programs because they know that is a stable job!!

  4. Thank you Dr. Reed for bringing attention to situation in Hawaii. We send. you, your teachers, and the students aloha from California.

  5. Dr.Madigan this is the reality of many of our youth, thank you for highlighting these crucial points. Simply sitting in front of a screen is relatively difficult in general, I can only imagine how this heightens emotions & frustrations.

    Thank you, will share this w/colleagues!

  6. “If you can’t afford to raise kids then don’t have them in the first place. That sounds cruel but kids really need a dad that has a decent job to pay for the house, mom stays home and raises the kids. The kids grow up in a single family home and not stuffed in a 1BR apartment.”

    Really? How do you suggest we deal with all the ‘un-affordable’ children. You think money is the answer? We are talking about children and families all over the world. Who’s to say a poor Mom can’t love their children to bits just because they ‘are.’ Your kind of wishful thoughts are really reminiscent of eugenics.

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