COVID-19 guidelines for reopening schools: policy considerations for children with special education needs


The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has significant consequences on all aspects of society and greatly impacts health and education systems worldwide. A recent article in the Lancet evaluates the measures necessary to prevent a second COVID-19 wave in the United Kingdom (UK) and explains that easing of physical distancing, including reopening of schools, has to be accompanied by large-scale testing for symptomatic individuals, effective contact-tracing, and isolation of diagnosed individuals. While these adaptations are important to ensure the health of all children and their networks, they become increasingly important for children with special education needs (SEN), given their predisposition to additional compromising health conditions. Policy recommendations released by international public health and policy organizations included limited regard to how children with SEN are impacted. It is crucial that policy is responsive to SEN considering (i) the array of health and educational support that children with SEN may require; (ii) up to 20% of children in the European region have some form of SEN; and (iii) modern SEN policy often lacks specialized guidance for the specific health and education needs.

The recent publication of guidelines for resuming education, forms a generic framework though the intricacies of the health and education of children with SEN are largely undiscussed. One common assumption across all international guidelines is that children have reduced odds of transmitting COVID-19. However, a recent trial in JAMA Pediatrics and a survey by the UK Office for National Statistics indicate that children carry at least an equal viral load compared to adults. International guidelines should be interpreted carefully as children may be at equal or potentially greater risk of spreading COVID-19. Table 1 explores different policy recommendations and their respective interpretation in the context of SEN.

Table 1 International policy recommendations and their interpretation in the context of SEN

RecommendationInterpretation in the context of SEN
Social distancingPolicy responses should balance (1) educating teachers and professionals to deliver SEN services remotely that are responsive to remote service provision; (2) involving parents and guardians to help the children with their SEN; and (3) creating an environment in which SEN services can be provided safely in-person, keeping in mind the likelihood of children transmitting COVID-19.
Digitalise the education curriculumPolicy responses should ensure (1) the provision of a digitally adapted curriculum that ensures all students’ health and education needs are met; and (2) evaluation of performance and success is adjusted to utilise more applicable indicators.
Shift between remote and in-person provision of educationPolicy responses should aim to synthesise a combination of options for remote and in-person education, keeping in mind that not all children with SEN will respond equally to any option.
Account for the needs of teachersPolicy responses should recognize (1) educators must be provided with the training, resources, and assistance to teach in multiple ways, despite potential limitations on method of provision, to ensure their ability to support a variety of learning styles; and (2) the need to engage educators to understand their attitudes towards SEN teaching during COVID-19.

Aside from these international guidelines, the UK recently published guidelines for full opening of their schools. These guidelines include specific mention of children with SEN and explains that staff should be able to interact with children as long as they keep their distance from other staff members. These guidelines operate under the assumption that education staff and all children, including those with SEN, are not at heightened risk of infection due to children being less likely to spread COVID-19. In light of new evidence, it can be dangerous for children and adults alike to continue operating under the existing guidance.

The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly impacted the educational landscape and resulted in a multitude of novel policy recommendations. Currently, education policy operates under the assumption that children are less at risk of spreading COVID-19, while recent research indicates otherwise. To continue operating under these assumptions could prove a significant threat to national public health and disproportionately negatively impact children with SEN. These rapidly produced policies provide a skeletal framework that has yet to be interpreted in the context of SEN, which is crucial for progressive education policy and the health of children and their networks.


Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest. 

About the Authors

Robin van Kessel is co-lead investigator at the European Consortium for Autism Researchers in Education (EDUCAUS). He is interested in inclusive education and public mental health. Ines Siepmann is a collaborating researcher at EDUCAUS. She in generally interested public health and policy development. Katarzyna Czabanowska is an associate professor at the Department of International Health at Maastricht University. Her research focus is on public health workforce development and public health leadership. Andres Roman-Urrestarazu holds the Gillings Fellow in Autism Research and Global Public Health at the University of Cambridge. His interests span the neuroscience of neurodevelopmental conditions, mental health, and social policy. Robin and Ines co-wrote this blog post, while Katarzyna and Andres co-supervised the writing process.
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