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REL Midwest Ask A REL Response

August 2020


What research is available on teaching special education during emergency or temporary crises such as the coronavirus crisis?


Following an established Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest protocol, we conducted a search for research reports, descriptive studies, and policy overviews on teaching special education during emergency or temporary crises such as the coronavirus crisis. In particular, we looked for resources with information on grading policies, achievement of IEP goals and social emotional learning. For details on the databases and sources, keywords, and selection criteria used to create this response, please see the Methods section at the end of this memo.

Below, we share a sampling of the publicly accessible resources on this topic. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The search conducted is not comprehensive; other relevant references and resources may exist. For each reference, we provide an abstract, excerpt, or summary written by the study’s author or publisher. We have not evaluated the quality of these references, but provide them for your information only.

Research References

Clarke, L. S., Embury, D. C., Jones, R. E., & Yssel, N. (2014). Supporting students with disabilities during school crises: A teacher’s guide. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 46(6), 169–178. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Most schools have crisis plans to support student safety, but few plans address the complex needs of students with disabilities. School supports should include analysis of school plans and student strengths and needs to ensure that students with disabilities have the best opportunity to be safe in school crises. Recommendations include developing individual emergency and lockdown plans to provide procedures for explicit instruction and needed supports for students with disabilities during a crisis. Implications for such plans and support for their development are included.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Deschaine, M. (2018). Supporting students with disabilities in K-12 online and blended learning. Lansing, MI: Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Appropriately supporting students in online and blended learning environments requires a great deal of instructional planning and preparation. When enrolling students with disabilities in online or blended learning programs, additional planning may need to occur so students can be supported with additional programs and services determined by the student’s Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) or from an accommodations plan resulting from a Section 504 meeting. Either way, these added programmatic concerns often require extra levels of consideration, implementation, and evaluation to determine the appropriateness of the online interventions and accommodations. The intent of this document is to supply educational teams content that will provide support for the planning, implementation, and evaluation of programs and services for students with disabilities enrolled in online and blended learning environments.”

Hedger, J. (2020). Continued learning during COVID-19. Policy Update (National Association of State Boards of Education), 27(3). Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Since states closed school buildings to protect students from COVID-19, schools have had to adapt quickly to keep students learning. Nearly all states put out guidance or resources to help districts and schools institute continuous learning and surmount the challenges faced by students in homes with limited or no internet access and those with disabilities. In states like Alabama, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, and West Virginia, much of this work took place with the help of a task force or advisory group quickly assembled and comprising educators and administrators from across the state. Resulting district plans for continuous learning encompass use of online platforms to conduct classes, streaming and TV-based content, teaching assistance online or by phone, assigning and mailing resources and lesson plans, and even in-person interactions for students with disabilities in homes or classrooms.”

Herburger, D. (2020). Considerations for district and school administrators overseeing distance learning for students with disabilities (Crisis Response Resource). San Francisco, CA: WestEd. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This brief, produced by WestEd as part of a collection of Crisis Response Resources, provides guidance and resources to help district and school leaders ensure students with disabilities are well supported through distance learning prompted by the coronavirus crisis. The brief begins with key questions to guide adminis┬Čtrators as they consider how to address the varied needs of students with disabilities that range from mild to low-incidence. The brief then provides suggestions and resources to address the following critical areas: (1) Creating a supportive distance teaching and learning environment for educators; (2) Using support staff effectively; and (3) Understanding the legal requirements of special education during school closures.”

Herburger, D. (2020). Considerations for teachers providing distance learning to students with disabilities (Crisis Response Resource). San Francisco, CA: WestEd. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This brief, produced by WestEd as part of a collection of Crisis Response Resources, provides guidance and resources to help educators support students with disabilities—ranging from mild to low-incidence—through distance learning prompted by the COVID-19 crisis. Many of the structures and supports for students with disabilities that were in place in the classroom will likely look different in the distance learning environment. Because students with disabilities, like all students, have a range of needs, teachers will need to consider how best to support each student’s unique situation. This brief helps teachers consider key areas that are imperative to teaching and learning for students with disabilities.”

Quality Matters. (2020). QM emergency remote instruction. Accommodating student individualized education program (IEP) & 504 plans in K-12 education. Annapolis, MD: Author. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Quality Matters has developed this document to serve as a companion document to QM’s K-12 Emergency Remote Instruction Checklist. When transitioning to Emergency Remote Instruction, all students should have the same, equitable opportunity to learn… This document will show examples of what accommodations a student might have, suggestions for how you can address it while in a Remote Emergency Instruction situation, as well as how they relate to the Specific Review Standards from the QM K-12 Rubric™, Fifth Edition and the National Standards for Quality Online Teaching. As always, make sure to follow the guidelines and resources provided by your local school system.”

Smith, C., & Colton, S. (2020). Creating a YouTube channel to equip parents and teachers of students who are deaf. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, 28(2), 453–461. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Due to the social distancing requirements in response to the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, K-12 students moved to online education. Because of the limited online teaching resources accessible to Deaf/Hard of Hearing (DHH) students, the authors have developed a YouTube channel that focuses on providing instructional videos that present different educational activities in a way that can be easily accessed by DHH students, their parents, and their teachers. Signed and captioned instructional videos for parents and teachers to use with DHH students were assigned as projects for two of the author’s courses. By creating meaningful online content as a part of coursework, teacher candidates gained the experience of creating a practical product to be used for K-12 students and teachers. The learning opportunities created by teacher candidates includes online technology resources for teachers, content-area activities for K-12 students, and fun activities to help build parent-child communication skills. The authors hope to continue to create educational online content that is accessible to DHH students beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Stough, L. M., Ducy, E. M., & Kang, D. (2017). Addressing the needs of children with disabilities experiencing disaster or terrorism. Current Psychiatry Reports, 19(4), 24. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This paper reviews the empirical literature on psychosocial factors relating to children with disabilities in the context of disaster or terrorism.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

U.S. Department of Education. (2020). Questions and answers on providing services to children with disabilities during the coronavirus disease 2019 outbreak. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is responding to an outbreak of respiratory disease caused by a new coronavirus named coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). The CDC has issued interim guidance to help administrators of public and private childcare programs and K-12 schools plan for and prevent the spread of COVID-19 among students and staff. This Questions and Answers document outlines states’ responsibilities to infants, toddlers, and children with disabilities and their families, and to the staff serving these children.”

U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights. (2020). Supplemental fact sheet addressing the risk of COVID-19 in preschool, elementary and secondary schools while serving children with disabilities. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “In this supplemental fact sheet, the Department of Education (the Department) reminds educators in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic that they should not opt to close or decline to provide distance instruction, at the expense of students, to address matters pertaining to services for students with disabilities. Rather, school systems must make local decisions that take into consideration the health, safety, and well-being of all their students and staff. Ensuring compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504), and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act should not prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction. School districts must provide a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) consistent with the need to protect the health and safety of students with disabilities and those individuals providing education, specialized instruction, and related services to these students. It is important to emphasize that federal disability law allows for flexibility in determining how to meet the individual needs of students with disabilities. The determination of how FAPE is to be provided may need to be different in this time of unprecedented national emergency. The Department encourages parents, educators, and administrators to collaborate creatively to continue to meet the needs of students with disabilities. It stands ready to offer guidance, technical assistance, and information on any available flexibility, within the confines of the law, to ensure that all students, including students with disabilities, continue receiving excellent education during this difficult time.”

Vasquez, E., III, & Straub, C. (2012). Online instruction for K-12 special education: A review of the empirical literature. Journal of Special Education Technology, 27(3), 31–40. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Online environments increasingly are becoming a part of our schools. While online education holds tremendous promise—offering viable and attractive options for advancing student skills, increasing access, and potentially lowering the cost of educational services—there is little research on the efficacy of online instruction for students with disabilities. A comprehensive review of the literature was conducted to determine if the existing literature can provide a research base for delivering evidence-based practices mediated through synchronous or asynchronous online technology for students with disabilities.”

Note: “REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.”

Young, J., & Donovan, W. (2020). Shifting special needs students to online learning in the COVID-19 spring: Challenges for students, families, and teachers (Pioneer Education Policy Brief). Boston, MA: Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “A new normal is expected to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. What it will look like is still to be determined. But digital learning is sure to play a larger role in K-12 and college education. For students with learning disabilities or special needs, as well as their parents and teachers, the goal will be to find what works best and for which students. This brief looks at the challenges of instructing special needs students in an online environment and includes best practices and solutions. Interviews were conducted with special education authorities, and research included materials and resources used with special needs children.”

Additional Organizations to Consult

U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Regional Educational Laboratories: COVID-19: Evidence-Based Resources –

From the website: “The U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences funds a network of 10 Regional Educational Laboratories (RELs). Each REL serves a designated region of the country and works with educators and policymakers to support a more evidence-based education system. In response to COVID-19, the RELs have collaborated to produce this series of evidence-based resources and guidance about teaching and learning in a remote environment, as well as other considerations brought by the pandemic.” (In the Resources by Topic list, click on “Students with disabilities.”)

U.S. Department of Education, IES, What Works Clearinghouse: Studies of Distance Learning –

From the website: “On March 26, NCEE announced a call for nominations of rigorous research they are aware of or have conducted that evaluates the effectiveness of specific distance education practices or products on student outcomes. This page includes all nominations from the field, as well as relevant entries from ERIC and the What Works Clearinghouse Reviews of Individual Studies Database. We are providing this list to the field for educators and researchers to see the range of publicly available evidence on the effectiveness of distance learning. Inclusion in this list is provided to the field as a way to highlight the breadth of research available. It is not an endorsement of the intervention or the study by the WWC, IES, or the US Department of Education. If the studies have been reviewed by the WWC, a link to the study review page is included in the list. Note that not all of the studies listed here are eligible for WWC review or would necessarily meet WWC standards.”

WestEd: COVID-19 Resources for Educators –

From the website: “This site offers an evolving selection of timely, evidence-based resources and guidance, designed to help you continue to make a positive difference in the lives of children, youth, and adults during these difficult times. We hope you find them useful and that you and your families and communities remain safe and healthy.”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • “Communicable diseases” “special education”

  • COVID-19 “special education”

  • Crisis “special education”

  • “Crisis management” “special education”

  • “Emergency programs” “special education”

Databases and Search Engines

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched IES and Google Scholar.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the publication: References and resources published over the last 15 years, from 2005 to present, were included in the search and review.

  • Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations.

  • Methodology: We used the following methodological priorities/considerations in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types—randomized control trials, quasi-experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, and so forth, generally in this order, (b) target population, samples (e.g., representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected), study duration, and so forth, and (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, and so forth.
This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Midwest Region (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL Midwest) at American Institutes for Research. This memorandum was prepared by REL Midwest under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0007, administered by American Institutes for Research. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.