Feature Issue on Crisis Management for People with Intellectual, Developmental, and Other Disabilities

Distance Learning and the Future of Inclusive Education


Gail Ghere is a research associate with the TIES Center at the Institute on Community Integration. She may be reached at ghere002@umn.edu.

Debbie Taub is a technical specialist with the TIES Center. She may be reached at drdtaub@gmail.com

Terri Vandercook is assistant director of the TIES Center, the national technical assistance center on inclusive practices and policies for students with significant cognitive disabilities. She may be reached at vande002@umn.edu.

Jennifer Sommerness is a research associate at the TIES Center. She may be reached at jsomm@umn.edu.

TIES Center is funded through a 5-year, $10 million Cooperative Agreement from OSEP, U.S. Department of Education. 

While it is widely acknowledged that student learning faltered during the pandemic, the education system as a whole learned a great deal as it began to find new ways to engage and teach students. For students with significant cognitive disabilities, distance learning presented both frustration and opportunities to make education more inclusive than it was before the pandemic. The TIES Center, the national technical assistance center on inclusive practices and policies with a focus on students with significant cognitive disabilities, quickly turned its expertise and resources to supporting and disseminating practices related to distance learning.

The unfolding impact of the pandemic was new territory for the whole field of education. Throughout, the TIES Center had ongoing connections with leadership teams in the schools we are working with as well as with the educators and families on teams for individual students who have intensive support needs in those schools. As many schools now return to in-person instruction, considering what we’ve learned through the crisis is crucial. Given all of the changes that schools have experienced, we should not unquestioningly return to how education looked pre-pandemic. We have the opportunity to capture what we’ve learned and move forward in positive ways.

While change was the norm during the past year, some important constants remained. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a law that requires students with disabilities to learn in the least restrictive environment with access and progress in the general education curriculum. That law did not change. Research affirming that students with significant cognitive disabilities learn best when taught in general education classrooms with grade-level peers did not change, either (Agran et al., 2020; Gee et al., 2020). Keeping both of these constants in mind remains a necessity.

Key Learnings

During the pandemic, schools and families who were committed to the values of inclusive education had to be creative to address barriers to learning. Five key learnings are evident from our work with schools, families, and individuals with disabilities and should guide future work as well.

Don’t abandon the curriculum.

For students with significant cognitive disabilities, learning means making progress in both the general education curriculum and Individualized Education Program (IEP) goals in inclusive environments. It is not one or the other.

During distance learning, instruction for some students with significant cognitive disabilities focused solely on IEP goals in isolation from the general education curriculum. Many of these students had little to no access to general education classrooms, curriculum, and instruction. The IEP “became the curriculum” because that was all that was being taught. Some teachers also began to reconsider how they were teaching as they tried to transition to online learning and families found that the work their children were doing often felt like a “waste of time” because it was focused on rote skills, such as mass training trials of identifying numbers or sight words, with no context. This decision limited access to both general education content and peers.

Other teams worked diligently to maintain access to general education classrooms, curriculum, and instruction with general education peers. They focused on the general education curriculum and IEP goals as part of accessing the general education content. Parents saw first-hand the integration of IEP goals and general education curriculum. They saw what adaptations and modifications could be made for their child to access learning in general education classes. It was not always successful, but teams continued problem solving.

For inclusion to be effective, teams need to develop IEPs that integrate with the general education curriculum in the general education classroom. Both are important. Neither can be ignored.

Harness the power of urgency.

Sustaining urgency to prioritize meaningful inclusive education for students with significant cognitive disabilities must continue. The creativity, collaboration, and professional learning evident during the pandemic opened up new ways to do this. The pandemic pushed schools and families to consider quickly how education could be provided to all learners.

Many instructional teams wanted to create high-quality, inclusive programs. They acknowledged they might make mistakes, but hoped that each decision moved them closer to this goal. This meant problem solving using some novel strategies, such as using the opportunity for limited in-person instruction for students with significant cognitive disabilities to access online synchronous instruction with their general education class.

These instructional teams prioritized collaboration with families and between general education and special educators. School schedules were created that built in virtual team collaboration so it was not left to “whenever.” Teams shared folders with lesson plans and modified assignments to simplify communication and create electronic repositories of these materials for future years. These teams knew that no one person could accomplish everything that needed to be done and no one person was expected to figure out everything alone.

Everyone had to be a learner. Schools offered meaningful professional development in multiple ways to educators and families in order to prioritize different tools, show how they fit together, and meet different learning needs. The outcome was greater access for all students.

These “ah-has” are not new. The urgency of the pandemic just made them more critical. Going forward, we must sustain the urgent expectation that inclusion needs to happen now and persist in figuring out how.

Build on where progress was made during the pandemic.

Understanding how schools and families collaborated during the pandemic opens new possibilities for reframing collaboration post-pandemic.

Distance learning was new territory for all education partners, including families! It is important to recognize the key roles that families have in the life of students with disabilities. At the same time, families are not trained educators and they have many responsibilities beyond their child’s education to address. The TIES Center heard many examples where greater trust developed between parents and the school as they problem-solved difficult challenges.

Families learned new insights for teaching their children, using technology, providing clear directions, and integrating goals into home routines beyond the school day. Instructional teams gained insight about family needs and schedules, providing useful support, and building their capacity to use technology and other strategies to support learning. Teams provided updated information and received feedback on what worked and did not work.

Conversely, some families and teams that did not have collaborative relationships were very frustrated. Parents did not connect regularly with teachers, struggled with technology issues that they could not problem-solve alone, felt isolated as they worked to respond to the regression of their child’s behaviors due to the sudden shift in routines, and struggled with building engagement for their child in the online environment. Concurrently, teachers worried when they could not reach families and when students had no support for learning because of other family demands.

Supporting high levels of school-family collaboration will move inclusive practices and educational opportunities for students with significant cognitive disabilities forward. We propose expanding collaboration beyond the school day to incorporate these strategies into families’ daily lives. Doing so will help students transpose their skills from school to home and the community.

Expand Universal Design.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) was embraced by many teachers during the pandemic to engage diverse learners online. Teachers naturally differentiated their instruction in virtual classrooms, even if they didn’t realize they were applying UDL. Similarly, UDL would enhance learning for far more students in inclusive classrooms if it continues once in-person learning is the norm again.

UDL is a framework for planning and delivering instruction that necessitates clear goals and flexible options that proactively engage learners in meaningful ways, represent concepts in multiple ways, and provide options for students to show what they know. It is inclusive of all learners, including students with significant cognitive disabilities (CAST, 2018). UDL maximizes the use of technology, but is not dependent on technology.

What does this look like for all students, including students with significant cognitive disabilities? Teachers had to quickly define the most important goals for their instruction, knowing that instruction time was limited. Clear goals focused teachers to design lessons that reduced barriers to learning and provided students with options or multiple means to achieve these goals. For example, teachers created short videos that could be re-watched by students and parents to explain assignments. Students introduced themselves in short videos that were shown to the whole class so everyone could welcome them. Teachers uploaded practice sheets to an app so students could respond on their devices. And, teachers dropped off manipulatives at students’ homes to help them learn math concepts. 

Students with significant cognitive disabilities being excluded from grade-level general education curriculum does not happen because of what a student can or can’t do. It is about how the principles of UDL are embedded to remove barriers inherent in the general education curriculum. Even if it was not perfect, if we continue this focus on clear goals with flexible options for learning in the general education curriculum during a crisis, we can expand it much further during in-person instruction.

Belonging and friendships are fundamental. They are not just “nice things.”

Peer relationships with classmates and friends is not a luxury item. Belonging is central to everyone’s quality of life. Teachers understand the importance of friendships and strive to build classroom communities to support peer connections. What is not always recognized is that students with severe disabilities have the same needs (Carter, 2018).

When districts closed due to the pandemic, many students with significant disabilities found the change incomprehensible. Students lost their daily connections with their grade-level peers, as well as the daily routines that they depended on for providing those connections. Teachers worked to build online communities to support social-emotional wellness. Some students were able to stay in contact virtually, but this often was an inadequate substitute for in-person relationships.

Planful and inclusive strategies that build peer support and networks will be necessary as students return to school. Peers can add balance and comfort for students and bring meaning for engaging in learning. A key to future success includes explicitly supporting students with significant disabilities to build and sustain peer relationships.


Many students struggled with the move to distance learning. The significant shifts in the structures, routines, and academic supports that they depended on were challenging. Many instructional teams worked hard to rethink distance education so it was accessible and successful for each and every student. Ironically, in some situations, the new insights gained by these teams opened doors to greater inclusion than the students had experienced before the pandemic. Post-pandemic, we must assure that engagement in general education and with peers continues and grows. These key learnings provide some strong jumping-off points for inspiring inclusive education in a sustainable way.

Helping Your Child with Math While at Home | The TIES Center and National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) Parent Video Series: Supporting the Learning of Children with Significant Cognitive Disabilities at Home supports families in understanding the important role that they have in teaching their children. The series, including this video on math, offers ideas for how to support learning at home.


  • Agran, M., Jackson, L., Kurth, J. A., Ryndak, D., Burnette, K., Jameson, M., … Wehmeyer, M. (2019). Why aren’t students with severe disabilities being placed in general education classrooms? Examining the relations among classroom placement, learner outcomes, and other factors. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 45(1), 4–13.

  • Carter, E. (2018). Supporting the social lives of secondary students with severe disabilities: Considerations for effective intervention. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 26(1), 52–61.

  • CAST. (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. Retrieved from http://udlguidlines.cast.org

  • Gee, K., Gonzalez, M., & Cooper, C. (2020). Outcomes of inclusive versus separate placements: A matched pairs comparison study. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 45, 223–240.