The COVID-19 Pandemic
In December 2019, Chinese officials detected the first human cases of infection with a new coronavirus, named SARS-CoV-2, in the city of Wuhan. On the 30th of January, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak a Public Health of International Concern and, six weeks later, recognized it as a pandemic. Since then, all countries have been affected by the virus, with severe consequences for all areas of society (e.g., commerce, industry, traveling). In this document, we address the consequences for education.
In March 2020, due to the widespread of the virus SARS-CoV-2 all over the world, many countries declared temporary lockdowns to protect the population. From that moment on, more than 180 countries closed their schools, and at the peak of the pandemic, more than 85% of the world’s school students were out of school (World Bank, 2020).
School closures had a strong impact on the lives of all students, but students with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) have been particularly affected by the lockdowns and the ensuing transfer of the educational process to online education (OECD, 2020). In fact, distance education often excluded children and young people with disabilities, preventing access to their support persons, altering their routines and individualized teaching, with severe consequences on their mental health (Uldry & Leenknecht, 2021).
Project SUCCESS ‒ “Supporting success for all – Universal Design Principles in Digital Learning for students with disabilities” ‒ aims to support teachers and caregivers who work with students during lockdowns, when digital tools and distance learning are the only media available for attending classes and interacting with peers. SUCCESS project consortium consists of six institutions: research centres, universities, and an NGO, representing five European countries (Greece, Italy, Lithuania, Poland, Portugal). The consortium is strengthened by its associated partners: universities in Spain, pan-European GÉANT Association, and schools. The project aims to provide guidelines and a self-paced online-course based on principles of Universal Design for Learning as well as an e-learning platform and a networking centre that can support the work of teachers and caregivers whenever needed.
The organization of support systems in Europe
European educational systems, considering that segregation of children with SEND is associated with lapsed learning opportunities, have been moving from a segregation-based education to an inclusive education system (Council of Europe, 2017). The most recent data collected and analysed by the European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education (2018 Cross-Country Report, 2020) show that the percentage of students with an official decision of Special Educational Needs in the international dataset averages 4,75% in primary and lower-secondary (ranging from 1,02% in Sweden to 25,12% in Scotland), and 2,41% in higher-secondary (ranging from 0,61% in Germany to 23,25% in Scotland). More importantly, the dataset shows that 97,83% of the students enrolled in formal educational settings (primary and lower secondary) attend mainstream classes for at least 80% of the time (again, ranging from 80,72% in Flemish Belgium and 99,95% in Italy). Higher-secondary levels follow the same tendency, with 96,88% of the students enrolled in formal educational settings follow attending mainstream classes for at least 80% of the time.
This numbers show that European countries are following the twin-track approach to inclusive education, proposed by the World Bank (World Bank, 2020), which involves two basic principles:
1) Educational systems must ensure that mainstream education programs are designed for ALL learners.
2) Educational systems must develop targeted support to address the specific needs of children with disabilities.
This twin-track approach is consonant with the multitiered systems of supports (MTSS) models, an approach that changes the focus from a placement question (where should the students be taught?) to an equity problem (how can supports and services be used to answer each students’ needs?). Or, in another perspective, no more “what is the problem of this student” but “what are the skills of this student, and how can we, educators, support his/her learning” (Sailor et al., 2018). MTSS models are sustained by an organization of the existing resources in the school, that provides a continuum of interventions with increasing levels of intensity and individuality. Most common MTSS models are organized in three levels: a universal level, destined to ALL students; and two levels of supports dedicated to those students that, even with a high-quality universal offer require additional resources or individualized attention (Santos et al., 2021)
Goals and scope of these Guidelines
The guidelines that this document presents are a product of Project SUCCESS, and their existence is due to the needs evidenced during the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, it is widely recognized that transferring the educational process to online platforms was problematic for all students, but particularly for students with SEND due to: (1) barriers to engaging with technology; (2) reduced access to educational supports and individualized learning interventions and, (3) loss of social connections (Sharma & May, 2020).
Therefore, it is not possible to avoid the “intrinsic insufficiency” (Rodrigo Mendes Institute, 2020) of distance education for students with SEND. These guidelines intend to provide a set of instructions and suggestions to increase the quality of the online education for students with SEND, recognizing that in a lockdown situation it is the best option available.
One important aspect, object of attention in many international reports and position papers, addressed by political measures in many countries, is the access to the technological resources needed to pursue online education (e.g., laptops, tablets, internet connection). These guidelines will not address this issue and will assume the existence of the basic conditions to online education: a device, such as a laptop or a tablet, an internet connection, a camera, to participate in online lessons, take pictures or record videos, and a phone connection. Some students, due to their disability, will also require assistive technology to interact with the computer. This is an important aspect, but one that will not be addressed here. Our focus will be on the pedagogical planning and the creation of resources for an inclusive online education process, assuming the existence of the basic conditions mentioned above.
One fundamental matter on the implementation of online education for students with additional support needs is the recognition that in many cases, the pedagogical relationship will require the participation of a proxy, someone who can assist the students in presence. This proxy, usually one of the parents, a sibling, or other caregiver, is an important element in the team, although untrained and frequently unprepared to do it. Therefore, we will also provide guidelines to develop a pedagogic team that incorporates parents and caregivers in the provision of distance education.
The guidelines will be structured in two parts, considering the twin-track approach (World Bank) and the multitiered systems of support (MTSS): first, we will provide guidelines for implementing educational practices in the inclusive virtual classroom, following the Universal Design for Learning framework, and, in a second part, presenting orientations to deliver individualized supports in an online environment.