Educating Students with Disabilities During the Time of COVID-19

By: Rebecca Collopy

Last Upated: January 3, 2023

As a recent article published by USA Today phrased it, educators and students are in the midst of a “huge educational experiment.”  To date, all 50 states have closed for at least a short period of time; some have even taken the step to close for the rest of the academic year.  In many cases, public-school instruction has now shifted into the online learning format. 

In making this transition, schools are working through what online learning looks like and how to include all students.  Students with disabilities have services that are guaranteed to be delivered by law included in their IEP. How can schools effectively provide special education via online learning? During the time of COVID-19, there's an expansion of free online resources available to educate students with disabilities. #TeacherTipsCovid19 #ParentsAreTheNewTeachers Click To Tweet

As a former special education teacher, I know firsthand how much work it takes to keep all the balls in the air on a day-to-day basis.  Shifting that entire process online is a monumental task! Here at National School Choice Week, we have gathered resources into one spot to help with this transition. Of course, we are not legal experts, and the guidance listed herein may not be exhaustive as the situation is evolving on a daily basis. Our goal is to provide a helpful jumping off point for educators as they tackle this new challenge.

If you have homeschool friends wondering what special education services are available to them, you can share the state-by-state rules we’ve put together at “How to Continue Your IEP, Even If You Start Homeschooling.” 

Jump to a section:

Federal Guidance

State Guidance

Instruction, Accommodations, & Modifications

Tips & Tricks

More Resources



Federal Guidance

Like teachers across the country, administrators are also trying to figure out how to navigate online learning and special education  The U. S. Department of Education has created a central website where they are housing all of the information that is being pushed out to schools.

On March 21, 2020 the Department of Education released a Supplemental Fact Sheet about serving children with disabilities.  Here are a few key points that answered questions I had when thinking about transitioning service delivery to a virtual model:

How do we deliver instruction? – This document reiterates that all school districts must provide a free and appropriate public education (FAPE), however, delivery of FAPE in the current environment may include special education and related services being conducted through distance instruction provided virtually, online, or telephonically.

What do virtual modifications look like? – Modifications (such as extended time, videos with captioning,  and accessible reading materials) and many speech or language services can be given through video conferencing.  

What happens if we can’t provide instruction? – If schools are unable to provide services due to the global pandemic, the individual IEP teams will need to make the determination if, and to what extent, students are owed compensatory (make-up) services once school resumes.

We have IEP/Evaluation due dates coming up – what do we do? Additionally, this document provides guidance regarding IDEA Timelines and possible extensions to timelines during school closure to COVID-19.


Click on the circles in the graphic below to see the different guidance documents that have been published regarding serving children with disabilities.




Understood has also published a post discussing the legal FAQs related to school closing and special education in collaboration with Lindsay Jones of the National Center for Learning Disabilities.


State Guidance

Just like the U.S. Department of Education, each state’s education department has their own guidelines for the schools in their state for special education during COVID-19.  While all states have to follow the federal guidelines that have been released, they also are providing specifics to their educators.  

For example, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction has released an Exceptional Children Division Update informing their schools to keep a log of services that are not provided (with dates) and conduct IEP Team meetings through alternate means of communication.  Regarding instruction, if the students continue to be given direct instruction by an EC teacher through online mediums it is unlikely compensatory education will be required.  If the school determines that they will continue learning through packets of work without direct instruction from trained staff then compensatory instruction will be needed (even if the packets are based on IEP goals).  This guidance expands on the information being provided by the federal government and provides specifics for NC educators.  

Many states have housed information regarding serving students with disabilities on their websites.  We have gone through and found where that information is located for each of the 50 states.

Click on your state in the map below to see what your state guidelines are!




Instruction, Accommodations, & Modifications

For over 20 years, online education for students with disabilities has been occurring.  Currently, over 30 states have online instruction!  These online schools provide special education and related services by using small group or individualized online instruction, delivery of specialized content virtually, and other related services as indicated by the students needs.  

For instance, Virginia Virtual Academy is one school who is already providing public education online.  VAVA is a tuition-free, online public school that provides a personalized course program, taught by certified teachers, and a vibrant school community.  They provide their online learning students with disabilities instruction from special education teachers according to their IEP.  Related services, if required, are provided in a virtual therapy room.  

Virginia Virtual Academy has developed best practices for online education for students with disabilities.

Photo courtesy of Virginia Virtual Academy.

This presentation from the Alabama State Department of Education Virtual Schools Webinar offers many examples of what specially designed instruction (SDI) could look like in the virtual setting.  They make suggestions such as: using virtual meetings to provide instruction, the use of verbal/picture/visual prompts & cues, teaching relaxation & breathing techniques, and counseling.  Do you have a student with social skills needs? They suggest using social stories to show examples and generate responses.

Importantly, one consideration to keep in mind is confidentiality.  Whatever route you and your school choose to continue to provide instruction to students with disabilities, make sure that it maintains student data privacy.

You can also have technology provide accommodations for you as you navigate online learning and special education! 

Many devices, including Mac/iPad, Windows, Android, and Chromebook, provide digital modifications that can help your students access the text that is on the screen.  Capti is a Text to Speech Anywhere program (with a free account) that accommodates those with special needs and provides reading accommodations to all.  As a bonus, Capti integrates with many of the LMS systems you are already using (Google Classroom, Schoology, Canvas, and more)!  

There are over 30 Chrome web extensions that can assist students with accessing their instruction.  The extensions help with text to speech (read aloud of text), readability (remove distractions, change fonts, color overlays), reading comprehension (dictionary, summarizing, auto highlighting), focus (remove distractions, provide pre-determined breaks), and navigation (click-free browsing, keyboard shortcuts).


Tips and Tricks

One thing that continues to inspire me is the way that educators band together to help each other out.  The education community has pulled together to make sure that all classrooms making the transition have what they need by sharing resources, advice, and providing encouragement.  Here are some articles and resources that have been shared about effective online learning and special education services:   

CEC and eLuma: Best Practices for Educating Online

Suggestions to Help Autistic People Get Through This Pandemic

Online Instruction Can (and Does) Work for Students with Disabilities 

When Children with ADHD attend School from Home: An Expert’s Tips

Occupational Therapy and E-learning: Resources, Activities, and Next Steps


Are you already providing special education services virtually?  Have you run across a helpful resource while transitioning online?  Email us your tips on online learning and special education: [email protected] 


Online education for students with disabilities is an important consideration during COVID-19.


More Resources

(If you are looking for content area resources, check out this page with 100+ Free Online Resources for Schools.)


AAC Language Lab – Special Education Resources

The AAC Language Lab offer real-life solutions in support of language development for students who use augmentative and alternative communication.  Interactive materials have been designed for Speech Language Pathologists (SLPs), Educators and Parents.  With over 50 years of experience in augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) PRC-Saltillo is pleased to offer this unique online resource.

Free Services Offered: Free 2-month subscription

How to Use: Create an account, under the My Account tab go to Purchase for Myself and select Free 2 Month Trial under the Language Lab purchase options.


ASL eBooks and Resources

This is an ongoing compilation of free resources available online, and this document will be continually updated with new links.  New resources will be added to the TOP of the appropriate category for easy visibility. Here are the categories of resources: Temporary Free Resources, ASL Storybook Readings by age, ASL Storytelling, Basic ASL & Vocabulary, Deaf Culture, Preschool – Grade 8 Breakdowns, ASL Songs, Science, Social Studies, ELA, and For Parents.

Free Services Offered: Ongoing free list of resources.

How to use: Visit the Google Doc today!


AssistiveWare Core Word Classroom – Special Education Resources

AssistiveWare Core Word Classroom offers a range of resources designed for AAC implementation.  The materials provided can be used to teach and model core words throughout the day.  You will find materials such as printable core word displays, planners for teaching core words during common activities, Core Word of the Week planners and displays, and resources & references for AAC implementation.  There is also a section of the website dedicated to using core words at home.

Free Services Offered: Always free

How to Use: Visit the AssistiveWare website to create your free account today.  



Attainment is offering free web-based subscriptions for their research-based literacy programs: ELSB (Early Literacy Skills Builder), ELSB for Older Students, ERSB (Early Reading Skills Builder), Access Language Arts, and Access Language Arts: WRITE.  Digital content retrieval is available through the new Attainment Hub website.

Free Services Offered: Free, 90-day web-based subscriptions for the literacy programs.

How to Use: For more information, email [email protected]


Autism Little Learners – Coronavirus Social Narrative

The website has a simple social story to help children understand the changes in their routines and the anxiety in the adults around them.  This social story is available in English and Spanish.

Free Services Offered: Free Social Story

How to Use: Visit the Autism Little Learners website to download today.



To help educators, parents, and learners during this time of need, the Tobii Dynavox team has gathered their resources and created Coronavirus materials within them.  There are resources for Communicating about Coronavirus: topic pages for Snap Core First, activities and resources, videos to get started, and Hospital Intensive Care Unit Communication Resources.  You can also access these resources: Pathways (free Snap Core First companion App), 30-day free trial to Boardmaker Online and Boardmaker Activities-to-Go (free, ready-made activities).

Free Resources Offered: Communication Materials, Activities to go, and a free trial to Boardmaker.

How to Use: Visit the Boardmaker website.



Capti is a text to speech anywhere platform.  You can sign up for a free account that has the following features: text to speech for reading; speech tracking word by word; fonts, colors, masking, etc.; cross-device sync; screen-reader accessibility; advanced text navigation; and offline use.  A Chrome Browser Extension applies these features to any webpage and allows the import of articles/text/images/documents to Capti. You can save to Capti from links, phone, computer, Drive, Dropbox, Bookshare, Project Gutenberg as rich text format.  

Free Services Offered: Free Account

How to Use: Visit the Capti website and sign up for a personal use account today.


Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities

The challenge of the Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities is to address learner variability by conducting research to make online learning more accessible, engaging, and effective for students with disabilities, for whom traditional forms of education have been only moderately successful and the precipitous growth in online instruction threatens to exclude.  To address these issues, the Center will assume a leadership role in conducting research and building a network of research collaborators representing a wide array of disciplines whose expertise impacts learner outcomes.

Free Resources Offered: Publications and Resources (UDL Scan Tool, VPAT List, State Policy Guide, and Resource Documents)

How to Use: Visit the Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilites website.


Control Alt Achieve

This website offers a list of Chrome extensions for students with special needs.  The blog lists over 30 Chrome web extensions that can assist students in five main categories. These are: text to speech, readability, reading comprehension, focus, and navigation.

Free Services Offered: Free list of Chrome Extensions

How to Use: Visit the Control Alt Achieve website to find installation links.


Double Time Docs

Double Time Docs is an online software that helps you write your Pediatric Speech and Language Therapy, Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy evaluation reports very quickly. You simply answer multiple choice, fill-in and short answer questions and your fully-written report is generated automatically. Double Time Docs recently started offering access to their software completely free for the 2020-21 school year for school district and private clinics.

Free Services Offered: Free use of the platform; unlimited credits for schools; 3 free credits for individuals (more available upon request).

How to Use: Visit the Double Time Docs website to register today!



Didax has a whole host of virtual manipulatives available online to enhance at-home learning.  Additionally, if you want to use the tools within your online learning platform, they can be embedded using the iframe command.  You can download the iframe texts for each of the tools by following the link on their website.

Free Services Offered: Always Free!

How to Use: Visit the Didax website today to start using these tools!


Glean Start Coaches Newsletter

List of resources to help special education students and families during home learning.  Resources are available in the following categories: visuals & social stories, parent guides, language arts & reading, math, additional academic resources, and social skills/social emotional skills. 

Free Resources Offered: Free read!


Guide to starting Home Learning for Parents of kids & teens with autism

The Teachers Pay Teachers account Curriculum for Autism, run by Kristen who is a single mom to a young adult with autism, has a free guide to starting home learning for parents of kids & teens with autism.  This guide provides support and reassurance as parents start having to educate their child/children at home.

Free Services Offered: Free Guide

How to Use: Download today from Teachers Pay Teachers (you will need to sign up for a free account).



Helperbird is a browser extension that gives you features to help make websites accessible.  The extension includes features such as dyslexic fonts, an immersive reader layout, changing of font sizes, screenshots, reader mode, Google Translate (over 23 languages), color blindness underline, and color blindness text stroke.  Works on Chrome, Firefox, and Edge.

Free Services Offered: Free download of the extension.

How to Use: Visit the Helperbird website to download today.



PresenceLearning is a teletherapy platform that has been designed by clinicians for clinicians to serve K-12 students with special needs.  There is a full therapy command center, dynamic camera and video modes to focus on multiple types of intervention, synchronized collaborative work-space, and an evidence-based/user-generated content library.  PresenceLearning has made their teletherapy platform available for onsite school clinicians to continue serving students at home during school closures.

How to Use: Fill out the form to schedule a conversation about how they can help during COVID-19 related school closures.


READTOPIA – Special Education Resources

Readtopia is a special education instructional program designed for teachers who work with middle and high school students with autism and other complex needs.  It serves as an integrated comprehensive reading curriculum across several domains of study including ELA, Math, Social Studies, Life Skills, and Science.  Readtopia uses Integrated Thematic Units to bring together all subject areas and skill development and provides graphic novels that are written at seven levels (but the cover is the same!) to help you differentiate. 

Free Resources Offered: Free Mini Thematic Unit (one month of content)

How to Use: Visit the READTOPIA website and sign up for a free trial. 


Special Education with Pat

Pat Noonan is a special education teacher from Methuen, MA, who has launched a YouTube channel dedicated to putting out weekly videos for students with autism and intellectual disabilities.  The videos incorporate Boardmaker pictures into a familiar TV show format that students enjoy (think Blue’s Clues, Dora the Explorer, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, etc).  Each video comes with 3 companion worksheets that are linked in the video description.

Free Services Offered: Free videos and downloadable worksheets.

How to Use: Visit Pat’s YouTube Channel to watch the videos, the links to the worksheets are in the video description!


Special Needs for Special Kids

This site is the home for a remote learning experience for students with moderate and severe disabilities.  Until this current crisis ends, the site will provide quality lessons and activities for teachers and parents to utilize.  There are currently 3 modules available, each lasting for 2 instructional weeks. Should there still be a need the next series of modules will be uploaded March 30, 2020.

Free Services Offered: Three free two-week modules teaching Maps and Globes, Levels of Organization: an Introduction to Biology, and Because of Winn Dixie

How to Use: Visit the Special Needs for Special Kids website and sign up!


Stages Learning Language Builder ARIS Curriculum

Stages Learning is giving free lessons, materials, activity sheets, data tracking sheets, behavior management tools, and a basic overview of how to use the system to those who are working with children with autism or other special needs at home.  These materials are a sampling of lessons and are 100% free to families.

Free Services Offered: ARIS Emergency Home Education Program Overview, Language Builder ARIS Manual – Abbreviated for Home Use, 34 Downloadable Lesson Plans for Early Autism Education, and 56 Language Builder Picture Cards for Download.  

How to Use: Visit the Stages Learning website to download today.


Tar Heel Reader

Tar Heel Reader is a collection of free, easy-to-read, and accessible books on a wide range of topics.  Each book can be speech enabled and accessed using multiple interfaces. These include touch screens, the IntelliKeys with custom overlays, and 1 to 3 switches (instructions are available online).  You can also write your own books using pictures from the huge collection in the platform or that you upload. The website is available in multiple languages.

Free Services Offered: Free, accessible books.

How to Use: Visit the Tar Heel Reader website to start reading today!


Teaching Exceptional Children Volume 46 Issue 5 May/June 2014

From the Council for Exceptional Children: “You never stop advocating for them, and neither do we. As you work to be there for your students while out of the classroom, find tips and resources for delivering special education online in TEACHING Exceptional Children. Topics include making online learning accessible, considerations, comprehension, support, special educators’ roles, designing online learning, and more.”

Free Services Offered: This journal issue is open access and available for free through April 18.

How to use: Visit the SAGE Journals website.


The Social Express

The Social Express is a company focused on Social-Emotional Learning and Career Path Exploration.  The platform contains interactive lessons that allow users to safely practice skills needed to manage real-life social situations.  The fun and easy to use program helps drive learning and success in and out of the classroom.

Free Services Offered: Social Express and Cool School are free through April 15th, 2020.

How to Use: Visit the site and explore The Social Express programs.



TouchMath is a multisensory math program that makes critical math concepts accessible for students who struggle to understand grade-level content.  The program is committed to maximizing student potential through its delivery of hands-on math programs, cultivating success with individuals of all abilities and learning styles.  To help keep students on track, TouchMath is providing free resources. These include: Workbooks (organized by grade level and topic, 56 activity sheets in each), Free Stuff page has downloadable samples, Desktop TouchLines free to download, and all TouchMath Apps are free in the App Store for iPad and Google Play.

Free Services Offered: Workbooks, downloads, TouchLines, and Apps

How to Use: Visit the TouchMath website and follow the instructions.



Vizzle is digital and engaging standards-aligned content for all learners.  As the teacher, you can quickly assign standards-aligned content from a variety of subjects.  Vizzle automatically collects data to help you determine student proficiency of individual learning targets.  Plus, there are teacher-driven student profiles with gamified progress pages and animated reinforcers to motivate and engage students.  Vizzle was created based on research demonstrating the efficacy of an interactive visual language approach to educating students with special needs.

Free Services Offered: 2-week free trial

How to use: Visit the Vizzle website to learn more and sign up.


About Me

Rebecca Collopy is the school celebrations assistant for National School Choice Week, helping to raise awareness about the amazing things our participants do throughout the year and during National School Choice Week.  She previously worked in both a traditional public school and public charter school setting as a special education teacher and special education program coordinator.  During her teaching experience she got to witness firsthand the impact school choice can have on a student’s education.

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