oversight

Distance Learning: Challenges Providing Services to K-12 English Learners and Students with Disabilities during COVID-19

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 2020-11-19.

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                United States Government Accountability Office
                Report to Congressional Committees




                DISTANCE
November 2020




                LEARNING

                Challenges Providing
                Services to K-12
                English Learners and
                Students with
                Disabilities during
                COVID-19




GAO-21-43
                                          November 2020

                                          DISTANCE LEARNING
                                          Challenges Providing Services to K-12 English
                                          Learners and Students with Disabilities during
Highlights of GAO-21-43, a report to
                                          COVID-19
congressional committees




Why GAO Did This Study                    What GAO Found
Due to the Coronavirus Disease 2019       Some English learners and their families had difficulty fully participating in
(COVID-19) pandemic, almost all           distance learning during spring 2020 due to a lack of necessary technology,
school districts rapidly shifted to       language barriers, and the demands of meeting basic family needs. English
distance learning in spring of the        learners lost opportunities to practice their language skills, according to school
2019-2020 school year. This shift laid    district officials and representatives of professional associations. Also, limited
bare both the logistical and              English comprehension affected the ability of families to assist students with the
instructional challenges of distance      curriculum, according to representatives of professional associations and a
learning, particularly for English        technical assistance center. Stakeholders also told GAO that some school
learners and students with
                                          districts addressed aspects of these challenges by, for example, increasing
disabilities, both of whom have faced
                                          access to the internet and devices and adapting materials and instructional
persistent achievement gaps.
                                          methods. One school district partnered with a Spanish language TV network to
This work was conducted as part of        broadcast curriculum for an hour every day. However, many of the major
GAO’s COVID-19 monitoring and             challenges with engaging English learners in distance education remained. For
oversight responsibilities under the      example, one district mailed home a workbook in both English and Spanish to
CARES Act. It examines what is            help students access online learning, but this did not address the needs of
known about the challenges of and         students who speak one of the other approximately 90 languages in the district.
lessons learned from providing
distance learning to English learners     Similarly, a variety of factors complicated the delivery of special education
and students with disabilities during     services during distance learning, according to officials from the four districts
school building closures in spring        selected by GAO and representatives of national organizations of school
2020.                                     administrators and service providers. Such factors included: the wide range of
                                          needs of students with disabilities served under the Individuals with Disabilities
GAO reviewed distance learning
plans from a nongeneralizable group       Act (IDEA); the services specified in their individualized education programs; and
of 15 school districts, selected for      the capacity of parents or caregivers to assist teachers and service providers in
their high proportion of either English   delivering general education, specialized instruction, and related services to their
learners or students with disabilities.   children. Delivering related services—such as occupational therapy, physical
GAO also interviewed district officials   therapy, or speech therapy—for students with complex needs was particularly
in four of these 15 districts, selected   difficult to do remotely. School district officials we spoke with said they
based on the districts’ detailed plans    successfully addressed some challenges by modifying instruction, holding virtual
for distance learning for either group    meetings with parents, and encouraging collaboration between general and
of students; interviewed advocates,       special education teachers. For example, some districts altered students’ goals
researchers, and representatives of       and services in temporary distance learning plans. Officials from two districts told
associations of school administrators     us they are considering using virtual meetings after returning to in-person
and related service providers;            education and would use them, as warranted, during future school closures.
reviewed relevant federal laws
including IDEA, regulations, and          Delivery of K-12 Special Education Services before and after School Buildings Closed to
guidance; and interviewed federal         Prevent Spread of COVID-19 in Spring 2020
officials.




View GAO-21-43. For more information,
contact Jacqueline M. Nowicki at
(617) 788-0580 or nowickij@gao.gov.


                                                                                       United States Government Accountability Office
Contents


Letter                                                                                     1
               Background                                                                  3
               School Districts Addressed Challenges Providing Distance
                 Learning to English Learners and Students with Disabilities by
                 Increasing Outreach and Adapting Instruction, Materials, and
                 Service Delivery Where Possible                                          9
               Agency Comments and Third Party Views                                     20

Appendix I     Organizations Interviewed                                                 23



Appendix II    School District Selection                                                 24



Appendix III   GAO Contacts and Staff Acknowledgments                                    26


Table
               Table 1: Characteristics of the 15 Selected School Districts              25

Figure
               Figure 1: Examples of Related Services that Some Students with
                        Individualized Education Programs May Receive in
                        Addition to General and Special Education                        15




               Page i                                             GAO-21-43 Distance Learning
Abbreviations

COVID-19                   Coronavirus Disease 2019
Education                  Department of Education
ESEA                       Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965
FAPE                       free appropriate public education
IDEA                       Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
IEP                        individualized education program
NAEP                       National Assessment of Educational Progress
NCES                       National Center for Education Statistics


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Page ii                                                       GAO-21-43 Distance Learning
                       Letter




441 G St. N.W.
Washington, DC 20548




                       November 19, 2020

                       Congressional Committees

                       Due to the ongoing Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, as
                       of September 21, 2020, 74 of the 100 largest school districts in the United
                       States had chosen distance learning as their only back-to-school
                       instructional model for the 2020-2021 school year, according to data from
                       Education Week. 1 The rapid shift to distance learning in spring 2020, after
                       nearly all U.S. school buildings were closed to prevent the spread of the
                       virus, laid bare both the logistical and instructional challenges of
                       educating students via distance learning, particularly certain subgroups of
                       students with additional needs, such as English learners and students
                       with disabilities. The 5 million public school students (about 10 percent)
                       who are English learners and over 7 million (14 percent) who receive
                       special education services have faced persistent achievement gaps
                       compared to other student subgroups. 2

                       We are conducting this work as part of GAO’s COVID-19 monitoring and
                       oversight responsibilities under the CARES Act. 3 This report examines
                       what is known about the challenges of and lessons learned from teaching
                       English learners and students with disabilities during COVID-19 related
                       school closures in the spring of the 2019-2020 school year.

                       To obtain information for this report:



                       1Data  based on School Districts’ Reopening Plans: A Snapshot (2020, July 15). Education
                       Week. Accessed September 8, 2020,
                       https://www.edweek.org/ew/section/multimedia/school-districts-reopening-plans-a-
                       snapshot.html.
                       2Data  on English learners are from fall 2017; data on students with disabilities are from
                       school year 2018-2019. B. Hussar, J. Zhang, S. Hein, K. Wang, A. Roberts, J. Cui, M.
                       Smith, F. Bullock Mann, A. Barmer, and R. Dilig. (2020). The Condition of Education 2020
                       (NCES 2020-144). Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for
                       Education Statistics. Accessed October 8, 2020,
                       https://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2020144. These groups are not
                       mutually exclusive. According to data from the Department of Education, in fall 2017, 14.3
                       percent of English learner students in public schools were also students with disabilities
                       who were served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
                       3Pub.    L. No. 116-136, § 19010, 134 Stat. 281, 579-81 (2020).




                       Page 1                                                            GAO-21-43 Distance Learning
(1) We interviewed officials from the Department of Education
(Education); representatives of organizations that advocate for students;
representatives of associations of educators, school administrators, and
special education administrators; and representatives of three technical
assistance centers supported by Education. 4 We also interviewed
representatives of three professional associations of service providers—
occupational therapists, speech therapists, and school psychologists—
and four research organizations. During those interviews we asked about
challenges districts faced and approaches used to address them. See
appendix I for the list of organizations we interviewed.

(2) We reviewed “distance learning plans” from a nongeneralizable
selection of 15 school districts to determine how they served English
learners and students with disabilities. We use the term distance learning
plans to mean materials that explain how school districts provided
education during distance learning. For example, distance learning plans
may describe the delivery of general education, special education, and
other school-based programs. They may also include information about
education materials, including those adapted to meet individual student
needs; the delivery of related services such as physical therapy,
occupational therapy, and emotional and behavior management; and
guidance to special education teachers and paraprofessionals or letters to
parents. We selected the 15 districts for their high proportion of either
English learners or students with disabilities. We also considered
recommendations from interviewees and looked for school districts in
settings with a variety of population densities. See appendix II for more
information on our selection of the 15 school districts.

(3) We conducted semi-structured interviews with officials from four of the
15 school districts that sent us documents for review. We selected the
four districts based on their detailed plans for distance learning for either
English learners or students with disabilities.

(4) We reviewed relevant information from Education, such as Fact
Sheets and Questions and Answers; federal laws; and federal regulations
and policies about special education and distance learning during COVID-
19 school closures.


4Education supports many technical assistance providers that provide content expertise,
evidence-based tools and resources, and direct support to state and local educational
agencies, among others. Specifically, these providers address agencies’ needs and assist
with implementation of federal programs.




Page 2                                                      GAO-21-43 Distance Learning
                   We conducted this performance audit from April 2020 to November 2020
                   in accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards.
                   Those standards require that we plan and perform the audit to obtain
                   sufficient, appropriate evidence to provide a reasonable basis for our
                   findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives. We believe that
                   the evidence obtained provides a reasonable basis for our findings and
                   conclusions based on our audit objectives.


Background
English Learners   Students identified as English learners are provided with language
                   instruction educational programs and are distinguished by certain
                   characteristics.

                   •   Language instruction educational programs are designed to help
                       ensure that students who are identified as English learners attain
                       English proficiency and meet the academic content and achievement
                       standards that all students are expected to meet. These programs
                       may include, but are not limited to, Structured English Immersion
                       programs, Transitional Bilingual Education, or Dual Language
                       Programs.
                   •   In fall 2017, students identified as English learners constituted an
                       average of 14.7 percent of total public school enrollment in cities, 9.6
                       percent in suburban areas, 6.8 percent in towns, and 4.1 percent in
                       rural areas. 5 In general, as of 2017, English learners make up a
                       higher percentage of public school students in lower grades than of
                       those in upper grades. For example, 15.9 percent of kindergarteners
                       were English learners, compared with 8.6 percent of 6th-graders and
                       7.0 percent of 8th-graders.
                   •   Researchers have found that from 2004 to 2016, higher percentages
                       of households with children where a language other than English is
                       spoken were categorized as poor (0-99 percent of the federal poverty
                       level) compared to English-speaking only households with children. 6
                   •   The academic achievement gap between English learners and
                       students who are not English learners has remained roughly the same

                   5Hussarand Zhang (2020). The Condition of Education 2020 (NCES 2020-144).
                   Accessed September 2, 2020, https://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.
                   6Child  Trends, (2019) Dual Language Learners, accessed October 5, 2020,
                   https://www.childtrends.org/indicators/dual-language-learners.




                   Page 3                                                    GAO-21-43 Distance Learning
                                   over the last decade, based on the National Assessment of
                                   Educational Progress (NAEP) reading and mathematics scores of 4th-
                                   and 8th-graders. 7

Students with Disabilities   Students with disabilities may be eligible for special education services
                             and are distinguished by certain characteristics.

                             •     Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), all
                                   eligible students with disabilities are entitled to a free appropriate
                                   public education (FAPE). 8 FAPE includes special education and
                                   related services—such as speech therapy, psychological services,
                                   occupational therapy, and physical therapy—that, among other
                                   requirements, are provided in conformity with an individualized
                                   education program (IEP). 9 An IEP is a written plan developed by a
                                   team of school officials, parents, and the student (when appropriate),
                                   that includes a statement of the student’s present levels of academic
                                   achievement and functional performance, annual goals, and a
                                   statement of the special education and related services and
                                   supplementary aid and services needed to attain those goals, among
                                   other information. 10
                             •     In 2018-2019, 7.1 million students ages 3-21 received special
                                   education services under IDEA, or 14 percent of all public school
                                   students.
                             •     The academic achievement gap between students with and without
                                   disabilities has remained roughly the same over the last decade,




                             7In2019, students who were not English learners scored higher than English learners on
                             the NAEP math and reading tests for 4th- and 8th-graders. NAEP math and reading
                             assessment results for 4th- and 8th-grades are reported as average scores on a 0-500
                             scale. The point differences on the scale scores are as follows: 4th-grade reading-33
                             points; 8th-grade reading-45 points; 4th-grade math-24 points; 8th-grade math-42 points.
                             Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education
                             Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics, 2019, tables 221.12 (October 2019) and 222.12
                             (November 2019).
                             820   U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1).
                             920   U.S.C. § 1401(9).
                             10Members of the IEP team may also include, at the discretion of the parent or school,
                             other individuals who have knowledge or special expertise regarding the student. 20
                             U.S.C. § 1414(d).




                             Page 4                                                       GAO-21-43 Distance Learning
                               based on the NAEP reading and mathematics scores of 4th- and 8th-
                               graders. 11

Education’s Role with   Education plays many roles in supporting educational opportunities for
Respect to English      English learners and students with disabilities, including overseeing
                        federal education laws and civil rights laws, and related funding,
Learners and Students
                        including:
with Disabilities
                        •      Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VI), which prohibits
                               discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in any
                               program that receives federal funds or assistance. 12 In order to
                               comply with Title VI, school districts must take affirmative steps to
                               ensure that students with limited English proficiency can meaningfully
                               participate in the district’s educational programs and services. 13
                        •      IDEA was enacted to ensure, among other things, that all children
                               with disabilities have access to FAPE that emphasizes special
                               education and related services designed to meet their unique needs
                               and prepare them for further education, employment, and
                               independent living. 14


                        11In 2019, students without disabilities scored higher than students with disabilities on the
                        NAEP math and reading tests for 4th- and 8th-graders. NAEP math and reading
                        assessment results for 4th- and 8th-grades are reported as average scores on a 0-500
                        scale. The point differences on the scale scores are as follows: 4th-grade reading-42
                        points; 8th-grade reading-39 points; 4th-grade math-30 points; 8th-grade math-40 points.
                        Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education
                        Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics, 2019, tables 221.12 (October 2019) and 222.12
                        (November 2019).
                        1242   U.S.C. § 2000d.
                        13Lau v. Nichols, 414 U.S. 563 (1974). Furthermore, according to guidance from the
                        Department of Education and the Department of Justice, school districts generally may not
                        segregate students on the basis of national origin or English learner status, though certain
                        programs may involve English learners receiving separate instruction for a limited portion
                        of the day or period of time. For more information on requirements related to English
                        learners, see Department of Education and Department of Justice, Ensuring English
                        Learner Students Can Participate Meaningfully and Equally in Education Programs
                        (Washington, D.C.: January 2015). The Office for Civil Rights at the Department of
                        Education and the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice share authority for
                        enforcing most civil rights laws in the education context. The Department of Justice also
                        enforces Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Educational Opportunities
                        Act of 1974.
                        1420 U.S.C. § 1400(d). For additional information on our work on IDEA, see GAO, Special
                        Education: Varied State Criteria May Contribute to Differences in Percentages of Children
                        Served, GAO-19-348 (Washington, D.C.: Apr. 11, 2019).




                        Page 5                                                          GAO-21-43 Distance Learning
       •   In general, under IDEA, a child with a disability refers to a child
           with intellectual disabilities, hearing impairments (including
           deafness), speech or language impairments, visual impairments
           (including blindness), serious emotional disturbance, orthopedic
           impairments, autism, traumatic brain injury, other health
           impairments, or specific learning disabilities who needs special
           education and related services as a result of the disability. 15
•      Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits
       discrimination on the basis of disability in programs or activities that
       receive federal financial assistance. 16
•      Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which prohibits
       discrimination on the basis of disability by public entities, whether or
       not they receive federal financial assistance. 17
•      The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), as amended,
       which among other things, promotes efforts to close educational
       achievement gaps by, in part, focusing attention on historically low-
       performing subgroups, including English learners and students with
       disabilities. 18
After passage of the CARES Act in March 2020, Education quickly
obligated emergency funding to address the effects of the COVID-19
pandemic on education, including more than $13.2 billion through the
Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. The fund was
established by the CARES Act to support, among other things, continued




1520   U.S.C. §1401(3)(A).
16Codified   at 29 U.S.C. § 794.
1742   U.S.C. §§ 12131 – 12134.
18The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), enacted on December 10, 2015, reauthorized
the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA). Pub. L. No. 89-10, 79 Stat.
27 (1965), as amended by Pub. L. No. 114-95, 129 Stat. 1802 (2015).




Page 6                                                    GAO-21-43 Distance Learning
learning for K-12 students whose educations have been disrupted by the
pandemic. 19

Education also supports state educational agencies and local school
districts by providing guidance and technical assistance. For example, in
guidance issued in March 2020, Education noted that if school districts
continue to provide educational opportunities to the general student
population during a school closure, the school must ensure that students
with disabilities also have equal access to the same opportunities, and
that FAPE applies. 20 While Education has noted that FAPE still applies in
these circumstances, Education has also recognized that during the
national emergency, schools may not be able to provide all services in the
same manner they are typically provided. 21 According to the March 2020
guidance from Education, states, school districts, and schools must
ensure that, to the greatest extent possible, each student with a disability
is provided the special education and related services identified in the
student’s IEP.

In May 2020, Education issued guidance noting that if a school district
provides remote learning for its students, it must continue to provide
language instruction services and language accommodations for content




19States and school districts have significant flexibility as to how they spend these funds,
including whether they spend any portion of them on students with disabilities or English
learners. As of July 31, 2020—the most recent date we reported CARES Act spending
data—the spend rate for CARES Act funds for K-12 schools (specifically through the
Economic Stabilization Fund, or ESF) remained low and few recipients had drawn down
their grants. Education officials and organizations representing state governments and
state educational agencies noted a number of contributing factors for low spend rates,
including normal grantmaking procedures, and the need to develop new health and safety
procedures for physically reopening schools. See GAO, COVID-19: Federal Efforts Could
Be Strengthened by Timely and Concerted Actions, GAO-20-701, (Washington, D.C.:
Sept. 21, 2020).
20Department of Education, Questions and Answers on Providing Services to Children
with Disabilities During the COVID-19 Outbreak (Washington, D.C.: Mar. 12, 2020).
21Department of Education, Supplemental Fact Sheet Addressing the Risk of COVID-19 in
Preschool, Elementary and Secondary Schools While Serving Children with Disabilities
(Washington, D.C.: Mar, 21, 2020).




Page 7                                                         GAO-21-43 Distance Learning
classes to English learners. 22 In addition, during the spring and summer
2020, Education:

•   Shared guidance on strategies to serve students experiencing
    homelessness, providing meals during school closures, and grant
    administration and flexibility guidance;
•   Provided technical assistance activities such as webinars, and links to
    resources for students and families, such as tips on ways to help
    students adapt to distance learning and for locating free meal
    services; and
•   Invited waiver requests for requirements under Title I, Part A of ESEA
    regarding statewide assessments, accountability and school
    identification, and some reporting requirements for the 2019-2020
    school year. All 50 states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and the
    Bureau of Indian Education submitted requests and received approval
    for these waivers. 23




22Department of Education, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, Fact Sheet:
Providing Services to English Learners During the COVID-19 Outbreak (Washington,
D.C.: May 18, 2020).
23In its report to Congress on April 27, 2020, Education did not request waiver authority for
any of the core tenets of IDEA, including the right to a free appropriate public education,
but did request waiver authority for several requirements, including provisions regarding
early childhood transition timelines. Report to Congress of U.S. Secretary of Education
Betsy DeVos: Recommended Waiver Authority Under Section 3511(d)(4) of Division A of
the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (‘CARES Act’) Apr. 27, 2020.




Page 8                                                         GAO-21-43 Distance Learning
School Districts
Addressed
Challenges Providing
Distance Learning to
English Learners and
Students with
Disabilities by
Increasing Outreach
and Adapting
Instruction, Materials,
and Service Delivery
Where Possible
School Districts Faced    According to school district officials, representatives of advocacy groups
Challenges Engaging       and professional associations, and education researchers we interviewed,
                          some English learners and their families had difficulty fully participating in
English Learners in
                          distance learning during spring 2020 due to lack of necessary technology,
Distance Learning         language barriers, and the demands of meeting basic family needs.

Access to Technology      Students who lacked access to broadband, internet service, computers,
                          or other digital devices had difficulty participating in distance learning. 24
                          Representatives of professional associations and a technical assistance
                          center and education researchers told us that English learners were
                          disproportionately affected by lack of access to technology, meaning
                          these students could not always access or fully participate in distance
                          learning, and school districts could not always communicate the
                          expectations and logistics of distance learning to students and their
                          families.



                          24See  for example, The Education Trust, “Education Equity in Crisis: The Digital Divide”
                          accessed Sept. 16, 2020,
                          https://west.edtrust.org/resource/education-equity-in-crisis-the-digital-divide/ and
                          Education Week, “The Disparities in Remote Learning Under Coronavirus,” accessed
                          Sept. 16, 2020,
                          https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2020/04/10/the-disparities-in-remote-learning-under-c
                          oronavirus.html.




                          Page 9                                                       GAO-21-43 Distance Learning
                    Based on district documents we reviewed and interviews with district
                    officials, distance learning incorporated both print and electronic
                    materials. Some districts provided resources to English learners through
                    online language-learning platforms. However, students without internet
                    connectivity or devices could not access these resources. In some cases,
                    even when families had access to technology, data limits and limited
                    numbers of devices did not meet the needs of multiple students learning
                    at home, according to a researcher.

                    At the start of the pandemic, school districts communicated extensively
                    with students and families about distance learning curricula, scheduling,
                    and digital platforms, and this information was generally shared through
                    email and online educational platforms, according to district documents
                    we reviewed. However, district officials and researchers told us that
                    limited connectivity and access to devices made it difficult for English
                    learners and their families to obtain this information, and made it difficult
                    for school staff to collaborate and problem solve with them. For example,
                    officials from one district said that they put together webinars for families
                    of English learners with information on how to access distance learning
                    but many families were unable to attend because they did not have
                    computers.

Language Barriers   Language barriers compounded technology issues. School district
                    officials and representatives of professional associations told us that even
                    when families had sufficient access to the internet and devices, they did
                    not always understand web-based instruction formats such as webinars,
                    and the language barrier made it difficult for school personnel to explain
                    how these methods worked. An official from one district said that even
                    though they used translation services to help parents with the logistics of
                    distance learning, it was difficult to explain how to navigate the technology
                    needed to participate in distance learning via a remote translator. The
                    official explained that some of the most traditionally effective means of
                    communicating with families of English learners, such as interacting
                    during school drop off and pick up, were no longer available to them.

                    School district officials and representatives of professional associations
                    told us that during distance learning students did not have the
                    opportunities they normally would during the school day to practice their
                    language skills with English speakers. For example, many students did
                    not have English speakers in their home and were not surrounded by
                    their classmates, which would typically provide an opportunity for informal
                    language practice. In addition, students may not have had access to
                    synchronous sessions (live sessions with a teacher, for example, via


                    Page 10                                              GAO-21-43 Distance Learning
                           video conference) with their teachers, according to district officials.
                           According to district officials, representatives of advocacy groups and
                           professional associations, and education researchers, the extent to which
                           distance learning curriculums used synchronous teaching and
                           asynchronous learning materials (course content that can be accessed at
                           any time) varied widely by district and even by school and teacher.
                           Synchronous language instruction for English learners could depend on
                           teacher preferences and availability for live sessions, which in some
                           cases was not offered or conflicted with student availability. Officials from
                           one district told us that wide disparities existed across the district in how
                           much teachers chose to engage in synchronous teaching and, as a result,
                           students had very different experiences throughout the district.

                           Limited English comprehension also affected the ability of families to
                           assist students with the distance learning curriculum, according to
                           representatives of professional associations and a technical assistance
                           center. According to district officials we interviewed, distance learning
                           curriculums were often dependent on family support, especially for
                           younger students. Officials from one district with a large population of
                           English learners said that these students are heavily concentrated in
                           younger grades, and therefore need more support with learning at home.
                           However, family members who could not understand the lessons or
                           instructions could not always provide this support. Representatives from
                           one technical assistance center supported by Education told us they
                           observed that many of the online lessons teachers used for English
                           learners were very different from lessons offered in a traditional
                           classroom, and did not have captions or other language support, making
                           it difficult for many families of English learners to assist their students.
                           The difficulties of distance learning for English learners, exacerbated by
                           language barriers, may reinforce existing achievement gaps for these
                           students, according to representatives from one of Education’s technical
                           assistance centers.

Demands of Meeting Basic   School district officials and representatives of professional associations
Family Needs               told us that English learners and their families were more likely than other
                           student groups to have responsibilities that prevented them from fully
                           participating in distance learning. For example, parents were not always
                           available to help students because they were more likely to be essential
                           workers required to work outside the home, according to a district official.
                           In addition, some older English learner students were responsible for
                           caring for younger siblings or working to help support their families, likely
                           due to COVID-19 job losses in their families. As a result, English learner
                           students were at times unable to participate in distance education.


                           Page 11                                             GAO-21-43 Distance Learning
School Districts Addressed     According to school district officials, representatives of professional
Challenges by Increasing       associations, and education researchers, some school districts were able
                               to address aspects of challenges created by distance learning by
Outreach and Adapting
                               increasing access to the internet and devices, using creative
Materials for English          communication strategies, and adapting materials and instructional
Learners                       methods. However, many of the major challenges with engaging English
                               learners in distance education remained.

Increasing Internet            According to school district officials, representatives of professional
Connectivity and Access to     associations, and education researchers, many school districts attempted
Devices                        to increase internet connectivity by paying for internet service, providing
                               mobile WiFi hotspots, or providing free laptops or other devices. While
                               these efforts helped students in general, they were particularly helpful for
                               English learners given their disproportionate lack of access to technology.
                               Officials in one large, suburban district told us that they were able to
                               increase access to the point that 98 percent of their students had
                               interacted with the online distance learning platform over the spring.

Using Creative Communication   School district officials, representatives of professional associations, and
Strategies                     researchers told us that school districts looked for creative ways to
                               connect with English learners and their families. A researcher and
                               representatives of a professional association told us that districts had
                               more success reaching English learner families through texting and
                               smartphone messaging applications than via email. In addition,
                               representatives from two professional associations told us that families of
                               English learners may be fearful of government authorities. To increase
                               families’ comfort levels with school personnel, and to provide materials,
                               some teachers visited students’ homes for socially distanced
                               conversations, according to representatives of other professional
                               associations. In one case, a teacher arranged a pizza delivery to a
                               student’s home and attached a note with her contact information. Officials
                               we spoke with in one district with a large percentage of English learners
                               told us that they maintained communication by hosting a virtual game
                               night for families of English learners, and had a partnership with the local
                               library system so families could pick up books at the library and then
                               participate in a virtual storytelling session.

                               According to district officials, some schools translated videos and some
                               created dedicated hotlines to translation services to help families more
                               easily understand options and available resources. For example, officials
                               we spoke with in one district told us they created videos in several
                               languages with instructions on how to access virtual learning resources.
                               In another district, an official told us they used a phone service that


                               Page 12                                             GAO-21-43 Distance Learning
                         parents can call to immediately get a translator for almost any language—
                         a service the official said works well for specific questions, but is
                         inadequate for conveying complex information about distance learning.

                         Representatives from professional associations told us that, in some
                         instances, these efforts to communicate strengthened the connection
                         between educators and English learners and their families. A
                         representative from one professional association said that distance
                         learning has made some districts realize they need to help families of
                         English learners have more of a voice within the school community. For
                         example, an official from one district told us that while the district does not
                         have a large proportion of English learners, it has families representing
                         over 40 languages. Distance learning made district officials realize they
                         need to do more in the future to facilitate translation and communication
                         with families of English learners. Representatives from a technical
                         assistance center told us that many school districts have done a great
                         deal to engage the community, including providing opportunities for
                         parents, caregivers, and families to provide input about what distance
                         learning should look like moving forward. But information on those
                         opportunities is often only disseminated in English, so there is an
                         information gap in terms of which families can participate.

Adapting Materials and   According to school district officials, some schools adapted materials and
Instructional Methods    instructional methods to better serve English learner students and help
                         bridge the language barrier with their families. An official from one district
                         told us that due to the district’s high number of Spanish speaking
                         students, it partnered with a Spanish language TV network to broadcast
                         curriculum for an hour every morning. This made learning more
                         accessible for both students and families, according to the official. Based
                         on district documents we reviewed, many districts provided supplemental
                         resources, such as web pages with links to resources for English
                         language learning. For example, officials from one school district told us
                         that the district was able to take advantage of tools such as free
                         subscriptions for language learning programs offered by some vendors. In
                         some cases, schools had been using these online programs prior to
                         distance learning, which made the transition easier for students and
                         teachers, according to representatives of a professional organization and
                         officials in one district. Officials we spoke with in another large district said
                         they created a paper workbook for students in both English and Spanish
                         and mailed it to students’ homes to help students who were having
                         trouble accessing online distance learning. However, this solution would
                         not necessarily address the needs of the district’s students who speak
                         one of the other approximately 90 home languages.


                         Page 13                                                GAO-21-43 Distance Learning
                             Officials in one district told us that parents of some English learners
                             became more involved in their child’s education when they had access to
                             translated materials. In addition, parents of some English learners were
                             able to better understand what their children were learning and discuss
                             schoolwork in their native language, according to representatives of one
                             professional association. Officials from three districts told us that while
                             synchronous instruction was not always available to students in spring
                             2020, they have standardized expectations for teachers to provide
                             synchronous instruction and all students should have access to their
                             teachers in fall 2020. Such instruction may help facilitate more live
                             language practice for English learners.

School Districts Faced a     According to officials from selected school districts, national organizations
Number of Challenges in      representing school administrators and service providers, and
                             researchers, a variety of logistical and instructional factors made it more
Providing Distance           difficult to deliver special education services during distance learning. 25
Learning to Students with    Such factors included the wide range of student needs and the services
Disabilities, Particularly   specified in their individualized education programs (IEP) and the
the Delivery of Related      capacity of parents or caregivers to assist teachers and service providers
Services                     in delivering general education, specialized instruction, and related
                             services to their children.

Range of Student Needs and   Students with disabilities are a diverse group with a wide range of abilities
Services                     and needs. Students with disabilities who have IEPs are generally
                             identified as having one or more of a variety of different disability
                             categories recognized under IDEA, including but not limited to, intellectual
                             disabilities, hearing impairments (including deafness), speech or
                             language impairments, visual impairments (including blindness), serious
                             emotional disturbance, orthopedic impairments, autism, traumatic brain
                             injury, other health impairments, and specific learning disabilities. 26 The
                             diversity of their needs and abilities is reflected in the wide variety of
                             goals and supports identified in their IEPs. As a result, the types of
                             services provided and the number of hours per week of specialized
                             instruction may differ for each student, making it difficult for school
                             districts to plan and schedule the delivery of such supports. (See fig. 1.)
                             Accordingly, none of the 15 school district distance learning plans we
                             reviewed included details on how the specialized instruction or related

                             25According to guidance from Education, states, school districts, and schools must ensure
                             that, to the greatest extent possible, each student with a disability can be provided the
                             special education and related services identified in the student’s IEP.
                             2620   U.S.C. §1401(3)(A).




                             Page 14                                                      GAO-21-43 Distance Learning
services specified in students’ IEPs would be provided. Rather, many of
the district plans simply noted that parents of students with disabilities
would be contacted individually by a special education teacher.

Figure 1: Examples of Related Services that Some Students with Individualized
Education Programs May Receive in Addition to General and Special Education




Note: Under IDEA, a free appropriate public education means special education and related services
that, among other things, are provided in conformity with students’ individualized education programs.
Some students with disabilities may not receive related services while others may receive one or
more services. Related services may include some of the services outlined above and are defined in
IDEA at 20 U.S.C. § 1401(26).




Page 15                                                              GAO-21-43 Distance Learning
                              Many of the 15 selected school districts shortened their school day during
                              distance learning for all students, sometimes to only a few hours, and
                              often had limited live communication time with the teacher, according to
                              our review of district plans. Officials in two of the four districts and
                              representatives from advocacy groups noted that the shorter school days
                              made it especially difficult to find time to provide the specialized
                              instruction and related services detailed in students’ IEPs on top of
                              regular general education. For example, one district official described a
                              student’s IEP that called for 4 hours of individualized special education
                              instruction per day, but the school day during distance learning was less
                              than 4 hours. Hence, the student did not receive the full 4 hours of
                              individualized instruction, much less participate in the general education
                              class time.

                              School officials from all four districts told us that delivering related
                              services—such as occupational therapy, physical therapy, or speech
                              therapy—for students with complex needs was particularly difficult in a
                              virtual setting. Officials from one district and researchers raised concerns
                              about students not receiving services in the same manner as they did
                              prior to distance learning, including occupational and physical therapy
                              that involved hands-on instruction from therapists or required specialized
                              equipment unavailable in students’ homes. For example, students at
                              home may not have access to technology (such as braille readers) that
                              they use at school to help them communicate.

Parental Capacity to Assist   Distance learning required school districts to rely on parents or other
                              caregivers to take a more active role in providing education and services
                              identified in their children’s IEPs. Given some students’ instructional
                              needs, multiple teachers, aides, and therapists may be involved in
                              providing education and additional support services. We heard from
                              school district officials, researchers, and national associations of service
                              providers that parents were overwhelmed with the number of roles they
                              were being asked to assume. For example, parents may take on the roles
                              of teachers while simultaneously assuming the responsibilities of aides to
                              help their children behave appropriately, and of service providers to help
                              their children perform the tasks discussed by teachers. Additionally, this
                              could involve parents learning how to use students’ learning devices or
                              specialized equipment that differs from those normally used at home.
                              Some parents were unable to assist providers because of other
                              responsibilities, such as work or caring for other children, according to
                              district officials, researchers, and national associations of service
                              providers. For families where caregivers worked outside the home,
                              teleworked but did not have flexibility in their schedule, or were otherwise


                              Page 16                                             GAO-21-43 Distance Learning
                             unable to take on these new roles, school district officials told us that they
                             were still working to find ways to get services to students.

School Districts Addressed   School district officials we spoke with noted success addressing some
Challenges of Distance       challenges to providing distance learning to students with disabilities by
                             modifying goals and instruction, meeting with parents virtually, and
Learning for Students with
                             encouraging teacher collaboration. In some cases, new procedures put
Disabilities by Modifying    into place during COVID-19 may help inform planning for future closures.
Instruction, Holding IEP
Meetings Virtually, and
Encouraging Collaboration
Modifying Goals and          Officials we interviewed from all four districts and representatives of
Instruction                  professional organizations told us that some school districts modified
                             students’ goals and services to account for the limitations of distance
                             learning. In some cases, districts formalized these adjustments by adding
                             temporary distance learning plans to students’ IEPs. 27 Based on our
                             review of 15 districts’ distance learning plans, eight of the 15 explicitly
                             noted in their plans that the goals and activities of existing IEPs would be
                             modified with manageable goals, given the logistics of the new learning
                             environment. Officials from two districts told us that general education
                             and special education teachers worked together to modify students’
                             assignments. For example, to accommodate shorter school days in one
                             district, a general education teacher reduced the number of math
                             problems assigned to a student so the student would have more time to
                             work with a special education teacher on IEP goals. Officials added that
                             such collaborative approaches could help teachers identify and more
                             quickly accommodate both general and special education needs of
                             students during any future closures. In contrast to modifying students’
                             IEPs, some school districts left existing IEPs in place and instructed
                             teachers and providers to make good faith efforts to deliver services and

                             27A distance learning plan must be consistent with and support the delivery of special
                             education and related services under IDEA. Education guidance from March 12, 2020
                             stated “IEP teams may, but are not required to, include distance learning plans in a child’s
                             IEP that could be triggered and implemented during a selective closure due to a COVID-
                             19 outbreak. Such contingent provisions may include the provision of special education
                             and related services at an alternate location or the provision of online or virtual instruction,
                             instructional telephone calls, and other curriculum-based instructional activities, and may
                             identify which special education and related services, if any, could be provided at the
                             child’s home.” Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative
                             Services and Office of Special Education Programs, Questions And Answers On Providing
                             Services To Children With Disabilities During The Coronavirus Disease 2019 Outbreak
                             (Washington, D.C.: Mar. 12, 2020).




                             Page 17                                                          GAO-21-43 Distance Learning
                       meet pre-existing goals, according to representatives of associations of
                       school administrators.

                       At the same time, officials from all four school districts as well as some
                       researchers told us that some students with disabilities thrived in the
                       virtual environment. For example, an official from one district said some
                       students, such as those with social anxiety and other mental health
                       conditions, were better able to focus outside a classroom. Officials from
                       several school districts told us that future special education and service
                       delivery may include additional elements of virtual learning.

Virtual IEP meetings   Some districts addressed the logistical challenges of holding IEP
                       meetings during distance learning by meeting either by phone or video
                       conference, according to officials from three of the four selected districts
                       and our review of district plans. Under IDEA, school districts are required
                       to ensure that the IEP team meets at least once a year to review the IEP
                       and make any appropriate changes. 28 Several school district officials said
                       that holding these meetings virtually worked well and the virtual meetings
                       were more efficient than in-person meetings. One district official told us
                       that several parents had commented on the increased flexibility provided
                       by being able to participate in the meeting from their home or office.
                       Another official told us about a parent who had previously needed to take
                       off a half day of work to attend in-person IEP meetings, only needed to
                       take less than an hour of leave for a virtual IEP meeting. Another parent
                       noted both parents could participate in the conference if virtual, but might
                       not have been able to do so in person due to scheduling conflicts and
                       travel time, according to another district official.

                       Officials from two districts told us they are considering using virtual IEP
                       meetings after they fully return to in-person education and would most
                       certainly use them as warranted during any future school building
                       closures. Specifically, officials from one of those districts reported that
                       virtual IEP meetings worked better than they expected, according to
                       surveys the district conducted of parents of students with disabilities.
                       They now expect that virtual IEP meetings are the way of the future. They
                       also noted that this has been a catalyst to look at education in a different
                       way—to figure out who will benefit from doing this virtually, and to give
                       families these options.


                       28Under IDEA, meetings of the IEP team may occur through alternative means, such as
                       videoconferencing and conference telephone calls, subject to the agreement of the parent
                       and the public agency.




                       Page 18                                                     GAO-21-43 Distance Learning
Increased Parent and Teacher   In addition to participating in IEP meetings virtually, some parents were
Collaboration                  also able to take on additional roles and fill in as their child’s aide or
                               therapist. Officials from several school districts and representatives from
                               several national associations of service providers told us that many
                               parents were remotely trained to help provide services, such as speech
                               therapy and occupational therapy, to their children during distance
                               learning. Providers would observe and give feedback to parents on how
                               to aid students and to the students on their performance. For example, a
                               speech therapist may instruct a parent on how much hinting or leading
                               they provide when helping their child identify a word on the page and aid
                               the student in mouth motions and pronunciation during virtual sessions. In
                               another example, we heard from officials in one school district that they
                               had delivered to students’ homes the specialized equipment used for
                               physical or occupational therapy at school. The therapists were able to
                               remotely train parents how to use the equipment and provide the needed
                               supports to their children. Representatives from two advocacy groups told
                               us that it is beneficial to have family engagement, but that providing
                               students with the services they need remains an ongoing challenge.

                               Researchers from professional organizations as well as officials we
                               interviewed from all four selected school districts said that increased
                               collaboration among educators was critical to delivering quality education
                               that met students’ needs while trying to minimize the stress on students,
                               parents, caregivers, and teachers. An official from one district told us that
                               without such collaboration, students initially received duplicative and
                               excessive workloads from both their general education and special
                               education teachers. The students and their parents were overwhelmed.
                               As a result of these experiences, the district enhanced expectations
                               around coordination for its general and special education teachers.

                               According to officials from two school districts and representatives of
                               national organizations of educators and school administrators, increased
                               collaboration also resulted in increased awareness between teachers. For
                               example, officials from two of the school districts said that general
                               education teachers were enlightened by seeing how much the special
                               education department does for its students. One of the officials told us
                               that this insightfulness is an opening for better communication and
                               increased appreciation of special education.




                               Page 19                                              GAO-21-43 Distance Learning
                        We provided a draft of this report to the Department of Education
Agency Comments         (Education) for review and comment. Education provided technical
and Third Party Views   comments, which we incorporated as appropriate. We also provided
                        selected draft excerpts to relevant officials we interviewed in school
                        districts, and incorporated any comments as appropriate.

                        We are sending copies of this report to the appropriate congressional
                        committees, the Secretary of Education, and other interested parties. In
                        addition, the report is available at no charge on the GAO website at
                        https://www.gao.gov.

                        If you or your staff have any questions about this report, please contact
                        me at (617) 788-0580 or nowickij@gao.gov. Contact points for our Offices
                        of Congressional Relations and Public Affairs may be found on the last
                        page of this report. GAO staff who made key contributions to this report
                        are listed in appendix III.




                        Jacqueline M. Nowicki,
                        Director, Education, Workforce,
                          and Income Security Issues




                        Page 20                                            GAO-21-43 Distance Learning
List of Committees

The Honorable Richard C. Shelby
Chairman
The Honorable Patrick J. Leahy
Vice Chairman
Committee on Appropriations
United States Senate

The Honorable Lamar Alexander
Chairman
The Honorable Patty Murray
Ranking Member
Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions
United States Senate

The Honorable Ron Johnson
Chairman
The Honorable Gary C. Peters
Ranking Member
Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs
United States Senate

The Honorable Nita M. Lowey
Chairwoman
The Honorable Kay Granger
Ranking Member
Committee on Appropriations
House of Representatives

The Honorable Frank Pallone, Jr.
Chairman
The Honorable Greg Walden
Republican Leader
Committee on Energy and Commerce
House of Representatives




Page 21                                        GAO-21-43 Distance Learning
List of Committees Continued

The Honorable Bennie Thompson
Chairman
The Honorable Mike D. Rogers
Ranking Member
Committee on Homeland Security
House of Representatives

The Honorable Carolyn B. Maloney
Chairwoman
The Honorable James R. Comer
Ranking Member
Committee on Oversight and Reform
House of Representatives




Page 22                             GAO-21-43 Distance Learning
Appendix I: Organizations Interviewed
              Appendix I: Organizations Interviewed




              Organizations that advocate for students
              •   The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, Inc. (COPAA)
              •   National Disability Rights Network (NDRN)
              •   National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD)
              •   The Education Trust

              Associations of educators, school administrators, or special education
              administrators
              •   Chiefs for Change
              •   National Association of State Directors of Special Education
                  (NASDSE)
              •   Council of Administrators of Special Education (CASE)
              •   Council of the Great City Schools
              •   The School Superintendents Association (AASA)
              •   National Association of English Learner Program Administrators
                  (NAELPA)
              •   National Education Association

              Technical assistance centers supported by Education
              •   Mid-Atlantic Equity Consortium (MAEC)
              •   National Center for Systemic Improvement (NCSI)
              •   Midwest and Plains Equity Assistance Center (MAP)

              Professional associations of service providers
              •   National Association of School Psychologists (NASP)
              •   American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA)
              •   American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA)

              Research organizations
              •   Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE)
              •   The Brookings Institution
              •   Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities (COLSD)
              •   Education Week Research Center




              Page 23                                           GAO-21-43 Distance Learning
Appendix II: School District Selection
               Appendix II: School District Selection




               To understand how some school districts served English learners and
               students with disabilities during COVID-19 related school closures in the
               spring of 2019-2020 school year, we reviewed distance learning plans
               from a nongeneralizable selection of 15 school districts. The school
               districts were in California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Maine, Maryland,
               Missouri, New Hampshire, Texas, Utah, and Vermont. We use the term
               distance learning plans to describe materials that explain how school
               districts provided education during distance learning. For example,
               distance learning plans may describe the delivery of general education,
               special education, and other school-based programs. They may also
               include information about education materials, including those adapted to
               meet individual student needs; the delivery of specialized services such
               as physical therapy, occupational therapy, and emotional and behavior
               management; and guidance to special education teachers and
               paraprofessionals or letters to parents.

               We selected the 15 districts for their high proportion of either English
               learners or students with disabilities. We also considered
               recommendations from interviewees and settings with a variety of
               population densities. See table 1 for characteristics of the 15 school
               districts.




               Page 24                                             GAO-21-43 Distance Learning
                                                              Appendix II: School District Selection




Table 1: Characteristics of the 15 Selected School Districts

Number of                                               Percent of students who                    Percent of students who are                      Population
Students                                                    are English learners                      students with disabilities                      Density
147                                                                                        ─                                 36.7                          Rural
435                                                                                        ─                                 44.1                          Rural
2,330                                                                                     1.2                                17.3                          Town
2,338a                                                                                    0.4                                13.6                          Rural
2,844                                                                                     7.8                                   7                          Rural
3,980a                                                                                     ─                                 14.6                     Suburban
6,238                                                                                    68.4                                 7.3                          Rural
10,184                                                                                   66.4                                10.1                          Rural
15,345                                                                                   22.8                                12.6                            City
66,767                                                                                   21.8                                11.8                     Suburban
84,646                                                                                    5.8                                   ─                     Suburban
132,657                                                                                  20.1                                11.4                     Suburban
270,978a                                                                                 11.7                                13.7                     Suburban
359,476                                                                                  18.2                                14.2                            City
495,255a                                                                                 20.6                                14.6                            City
Source: GAO analysis of the Department of Education’s Common Core of Data. ǀ GAO-21-43

                                                              Note: [ - ] indicates that the data are missing.
                                                              a
                                                               We conducted semi-structured interviews with these four districts, which were chosen based on their
                                                              detailed plans for distance learning for either English learners or students with disabilities.




                                                              Page 25                                                               GAO-21-43 Distance Learning
Appendix III: GAO Contacts and Staff
                  Appendix III: GAO Contacts and Staff
                  Acknowledgments


Acknowledgments

                  Jacqueline M. Nowicki at (617) 788-0580 or nowickij@gao.gov
GAO Contact
                  In addition to the contact named above, Bill Keller (Assistant Director),
Staff             Melinda Bowman (Analyst-in-Charge), Melissa Jaynes, and Alexandra
Acknowledgments   Squitieri made key contributions to this report. Elizabeth Calderon,
                  Serena Lo, Corinna Nicolaou, Liam O’Laughlin, Ronni Schwartz, and
                  Curtia Taylor provided additional support.




(104275)
                  Page 26                                             GAO-21-43 Distance Learning
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