Supporting students in the face of Covid-19

Learning Differences

31 May 2021

© Liderina / Adobe Stock

When the risks of the Covid-19 virus started to become clear in early spring of 2020, many schools were forced to close, ultimately affecting at least 50.8 million public school students in the US alone. Around the world, 96 per cent of countries closed schools by the end of March, affecting approximately 711 million children.[1]

Families had to balance work responsibilities with new childcare roles and support for their children’s virtual learning. Unfortunately, many students whose parents were unable to support their online learning – particularly those from low-income families with poor internet connectivity – opted out of school altogether.

“In addition to creating lost learning time for students, the widespread school closures caused by the pandemic shone a new light on and widened the inequities for vulnerable learners, including those with learning differences, students of colour, students from low-income families and English language learners,” says Heather Graham, director of the Learning Differences Programme. Experts estimated that children in the US could lose as much as a full year’s worth of learning in reading and math during the pandemic, and even more for the most vulnerable students.

Schools’ remote learning plans attempted to fill these gaps, but this brought challenges for families and students with learning differences – from accessing instructional content and receiving proper services, to supporting social and emotional health during extraordinarily stressful times.

Students with learning and attention differences experienced these challenges especially acutely as they tried to receive specialised instruction and support at home. Schools in the US are required under federal law to provide special education services to students who need it. But early in the pandemic, many education systems advocated to waive these rights due to the additional challenges and costs of providing them remotely.

The National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) quickly galvanised its advocacy network to protect the rights of students who learn differently. “Now is not the time for waivers. Most students with disabilities are already behind their peers on test scores, graduation rates, and more. They cannot afford to slip further behind during Covid-19,” said Lindsay Jones, NCLD’s president and CEO. A US-based not-for-profit organisation, NCLD and its extensive network of young adult and parent advocates work through research, policy, and advocacy, to improve the lives of the one in five students across the US with learning and attention issues.

NCLD’s advocacy efforts were ultimately successful. Over the summer, the US Congress reaffirmed school districts’ legal obligation to provide equal educational access to students with disabilities and allocated USD 30.75 billion to support public schools during the pandemic.

As school systems in the US and around the globe continue to grapple with the impacts of this unprecedented disruption to traditional education, Oak Foundation is proud to support NCLD and many other partners who quickly pivoted to respond.  You can read more about the work of our partners on our website.


[1] Insights for Education, “Covid-19 and Schools: What We Can Learn from Six Months of Closures and Reopening” (1 October 2020), https://blobby.wsimg.com/go/104fc727-3bad-4ff5-944f-c281d3ceda7f/20201001_Covid19%20and%20Schools%20Six%20Month%20Report.pdf (Accessed 27-01-2021)

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