COVID-19 Deepens Structural Inequities in American Special Education

When Impakter first asked me to write a piece on special education, race, and the COVID-19 pandemic, I knew what the focus would be: that students of color are more likely to be disabled and poor, putting them at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 and receiving poor educational instruction via remote learning options.

There is plenty of data that talks about racial disparities in COVID-19, and some survey the difficulties in special education during the pandemic. While these conclusions remain largely true, there is still no data to represent how a combination of these factors is likely to increase the difficulties experienced by black and brown families in the special education system.

Furthermore, despite knowing that people with disabilities, particularly intellectual disabilities, are at heightened risk of contracting COVID-19, the COVID-19 School Response Dashboard and the U.S. Census Weekly Pulse do not include information on disability.

Data on various components in the relationship between COVID-19 and the outcomes for black and brown students with disabilities is not conclusive. There needs to be dedicated research on this issue because the consequences—a likely widening of the already large gap in educational outcomes by race and disability—are dire. 

Race and COVID-19

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has race-based information on 51% of cases however this information does not accurately represent the disparities present, as a comparison of these rates with the current demographics by race in the U.S. is needed in order to truly understand the disparities.

Since the start of 2021, the CDC reports that 55.3% of cases have been white, whilst the U.S Census Bureau reported that as of 2019, 76.3% of the U.S. population was white. At the time of the Bureau’s report, the Black community made up 13.5% of the U.S. population yet accounts for 12.6% of current cases.

The percentage of cases among Hispanic people surpassed the total Hispanic population in the US by 1%, with 21.5% cases infecting a community that made up 18.5% of the total U.S. population. Most alarming was the number of cases within the multi-racial community, which made up 2.8% of the U.S. population according to the Bureau’s report but accounts for 5.6% of current cases according to the CDC.

The same is true for Pacific Islanders who made up 0.2% of the population in 2019 but account for 0.4% of current COVID-19 cases. The Asian and Asian American communities comprised 5.9% of the population and 3.4% of current cases whilst the total Native American population in the US equates to the number of current cases in that community, at 1.3%. 

More specific data is available on a state by state basis, in Georgia, for example, race information was available for 82% of cases and 91% of deaths. African Americans comprise 31% of the population in the state, but 34% of COVID-19 cases and 39% percent of COVID-19 deaths. While 9% of the state identifies as Hispanic, this category comprises 15% of cases and 6% of deaths. 

This trend is reflected in academic research as well. A study published by the Journal of Internal Medicine in May 2020 found that black and Hispanic patients had significantly higher rates of infection than their white and Asian counterparts. The authors of this study cite structural inequalities as the cause of these disparities. [1] 

Class and COVID-19

One’s socioeconomic status impacts access to resources—from food to medical care to technology—as well as what type of job one has, and these factors are critical for understanding COVID-19 disparities. 

A study published in the World Medical & Health Policy in August 2020 listed type of employment as a primary structural cause. The authors of this study found that black and Hispanic workers are less likely to work from home than white workers. Our essential workers are disproportionately people of color, putting these communities at higher risk.

In this study, the authors note that COVID-19 is “exposing health disparities in the United States, which is outranked only by Portugal and Chile on income‐based health inequities.” [2]

Working on-site instead of at home places one at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19, and also reduces the opportunities for parents to support their children during online instruction. Parents with the ability to work remotely have reported experiencing difficulties with helping their children learn at home. This difficulty is compounded for parents who must go to work, and may not have the means to find adequate tutors or childcare. 

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The Learning Policy Institute (LPI) noted that one in five black children under the age of five lives in ‘deep poverty’, which is defined as living below 50% of the poverty threshold in the United States. Politico reported that four in 10 black and Latino families are experiencing difficulties feeding members of their household since the start of the pandemic. The PEW Research Center finds that lower-income adults, largely composed of people of color, have been most likely to lose jobs and income during the pandemic.

In the Photo: Volunteers help empty out a truck with food to donate. Photo Credit: Unsplash.

Special Education and COVID-19

In March 2020, the US Department of Education released a document noting that the pandemic should not interrupt federally mandated special education services while also emphasizing that the law allows for flexibility in service provision. They also released a statement from the Office of Civil Rights, announcing that complying with CDC recommendations should not require civil rights concerns based on disability or race. 

Even so, the U.S. Government Accountability Office noted that families with children who are English language learners and those in special education are having increased difficulty with remote learning.

Other reports have documented the challenges schools are facing, as they learn how to meet testing requirements, by providing free and appropriate public education, or keeping Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) up to code. Behaviorally, many kids with disabilities are struggling to stay focused and engaged and it is difficult for families and schools to gain access to occupational, speech, or vocational therapies usually provided in school.

In the Photo: Online instruction during COVID-19 continues to highlight existing disparities within America’s education system, as not every student has access to technology such as this. Photo Credit: Unsplash.

Many reports assert that, especially for special education students, the shift in responsibility has landed on the parents. Some have provided suggestions, like setting up regular meetings with your kid’s team, having certain software programs for your home computer, or even having two tablets at home for certain therapies.

However, this is only plausible for children whose caregiver(s) have the time to do this work and can afford the financial resources to ensure this technology is available. Some schools have tried to address this situation by having in-person learning for special education students while the rest of the students are remote, but at least a few of these attempts have failed and the schools had to be fully closed once again. 

Not only are black, Native American, and Hispanic families less likely to meet the requirements listed above, but children of color are disproportionately represented in special education. Data shows that 13% of students in America are served in special education with 17% being Native American, 16% being Black, 14% being white, 12% being Hispanic, and 7% being Asian, illustrating how children of color are more likely to need special education services and less likely to have these needs met during the shift to remote learning.

Moving Forward 

The disparities reviewed are the result of “structural violence”. This is a term that describes harm created by social structures or institutions and it is critical to note that the harm is, by default, man-made. People create social institutions, write policies, and build social structures so bias is integrated throughout, causing significant damage to certain communities and individuals.

However, because it is man-made, this harm is reversible, or at least stoppable. 

We have known for years that students of color and those with disabilities have lower graduation rates and fewer post-secondary opportunities as this is another byproduct of structural violence. If we act now, we can potentially prevent worsening the pre-existing achievement gap felt by students of color, and those with disabilities. By implementing research on the specific needs of students who fall at the intersection of disability and race, we can develop comprehensive solutions. If we don’t, it’s because as a nation, we simply didn’t try hard enough. 


  1. Anyane-Yeboa A, Sato T, Sakuraba A. Racial disparities in COVID-19 deaths reveal harsh truths about structural inequality in America. J Intern Med. 2020 Oct;288(4):479-480. doi: 10.1111/joim.13117. Epub 2020 Jun 15. PMID: 32452046.
  2. Rogers, T.N., Rogers, C.R., VanSant‐Webb, E., Gu, L.Y., Yan, B. and Qeadan, F. (2020), Racial Disparities in COVID‐19 Mortality Among Essential Workers in the United States. World Medical & Health Policy, 12: 311-327. Doi: 10.1002/wmh3.358

About the Author: Jennifer C. Sarrett teaches and studies topics related to equity, ethics, heath, and disability at Emory University’s Center for the Study of Human Health. Her current research focuses on intellectual and developmental disabilities in the criminal justice system. You can learn more about her work at

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of — In the Featured Photo: Three children link arms.  — Featured Photo Credit: Friendship circle .  

About the Author /

Jennifer C. Sarrett teaches and studies topics related to equity, ethics, health, and disability at Emory University's Center for the Study of Human Health. Her current research focuses on intellectual and developmental disabilities in the criminal justice system. You can learn more about her work at

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