School closures’ impact on children with special educational needs

School closures shed a light on the marginalisation of children with special educational needs, but what was the pandemic’s impact and how can education be improved?

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One of the many areas disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic was education, leading to school closures in March 2020. During the course of 2020/21, there was a mix of in-person and online learning for pupils, until schools fully reopened for the 2021 academic year. 

Whilst the government did allow schools to remain open for vulnerable children, research published by Frontiers in Education conducted during 2020 and 2021 showed that Covid-19 related restrictions have particularly impacted children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). 

According to the government, students with Education Health and Care (EHC) plans could continue in-person learning if their needs could be better met in their regular educational environment. 

Logistical issues were especially prominent in schools for students with SEND, where 97.9% of pupils have an EHC plan compared to 2% in mainstream schools. 

Social distancing and other rules were more difficult to implement in special schools. This led to school closures, online learning with low resources and circumstances that were not ideal for many children with SEND.

It would be incorrect, however, to state that school closures had the same impact on every family. Indeed, research shows that the experiences and responses varied from case to case, depending on a series of factors.  

The challenges and benefits of school closures 

Findings from UCL research showed that for many autistic children and young people (CYP) some of the lockdown measures were already part of their lives. 

For many, restricted social contacts and a lack of spontaneity were not a novelty, as was not being able to access a full educational experience. Indeed, according to the research “many CYP were also already struggling pre-pandemic with access to full educational experiences. Some were missing extensive periods of schooling, some were excluded, while others were being educated in school, but outside the classroom”. 

Dr Georgia Pavlopoulou, one of the study’s authors, says: “That was one of the saddest results because it shows how much isolation there is, and the lack of understanding these families have been experiencing from society before and during the pandemic.” 

She adds: “The recent research on the Covid-19 pandemic draws attention to the unequal impacts on differently positioned families, particularly highlighting the acute struggles of families who have to care for disabled members and how disadvantaged they still are in our society.”

For these reasons, the pandemic’s restrictions were actually beneficial as students and their family were able to find a more regular routine, which did not involve having to fight daily for their kids to receive a secured education in a classroom. 

This led some students to feel safer and more comfortable whilst studying at home, as well as not having to deal with the sensory and social challenges they would have in a classroom. 

This is the case for Amy’s daughter Lily, who is 14 years old and diagnosed with autism and ADHD. She struggles with anxiety and complex tics disorder. 

Amy, a single mother who works full-time in research support, says: “My daughter had far better mental health when she was off school, so there was actually quite an improvement in our everyday life during the pandemic. Also because I was available to work from home, which has previously not been possible, being physically around for her has been just so helpful and it really improved my mental health and hers as well.”

If on the one hand, some aspects of the lockdowns were beneficial for children with SEND and their families, on the other hand, they were left with little to no guidance on how to homeschool their children. This meant an extra challenge for parents if their kid’s education was to progress, as well as the difficulty of also managing their day job and the loss of external support.

Dr Pavlopoulou says: “Lots of these children are having therapeutic interventions. They might go for speech therapy or occupational therapy; they might attend social groups; and during the lockdowns, none of this was available and that, on many occasions, exacerbated their mental health or the physical health difficulties they had already been experiencing.”

In particular the closure of special schools compromised parents’ access to crucial resources, such as specialist educators and structured learning environments. 

Amy says: “[Lily] is very much of the opinion that home is home and school is school […] so homeschooling isn’t really so much of an option for her. It was more about trying to direct her into learning activities that were of an interest to her until she could go back to school.”

She adds: “There was just no support available, particularly for a child who is not keen to engage academically, so I did find that we were completely unsupported from that perspective.” 

Assessing the risks and opportunities of schools reopening 

When in-person classes started being taught again in September 2020, almost a fifth of students with SEND were not attending due to Covid-19 rules. 

Dr Pavlopoulou and colleagues found that 86% of family carers think that the needs of autistic people and their families have not been adequately addressed during Covid-19.

Issues around infection control, transport and timetables were some of the external factors. Frontiers in Education research reflects the difficulty of special schools in creating bubbles for students and staff to reduce the spread of Covid-19. 

Support bubbles were particularly difficult to maintain for those using school transport services as students in special schools often need to travel significant distances to access appropriate education that meets their needs. 

In addition to this, there was anxiety around Covid-19 and more students finding comfort from learning from home with the reopening of schools unsettling newly found routines.

This led many students with SEND to not be able to access education in the same way as their peers, especially during the 2020-2021 academic year.

In September 2021, when all schools across the country were fully open again for in-person classes, fewer restrictions meant having the opportunity to access education again for some. 

According to the findings from Dr Oliver, Professor Vincent and Dr Pavlopoulou’s research, the reopening of schools was perceived as a relief for some families who could once again access support and a more stimulating learning environment, with opportunities to work on their social skills. 

Although Lily was happy to go back into the classroom, not being able to have many face-to-face interactions during lockdowns and being surrounded by other people led to a deterioration of her mental health. Currently, due to exhaustion induced by her anxiety, she is on a part-time schedule. 

“One negative that came out as a result of the time out is that she does have difficulty with making and maintaining friendships. She did have a few friends that she’s struggled to reach out to since they’ve gone back to physical school,” explains Amy. 

Indeed, returning to school was such an unsettling time for many and that and the fear of the spread of Covid-19 led some parents to opt for home education. 

“Some kids are still homeschooled simply because the level of anxiety they have doesn’t allow them to go to school,” says Dr Pavlopoulou. “For some students online learning was good because it was removing all the sensory or overwhelming experiences. So some children might get very anxious when they have to be at school again because it’s very noisy and because of the clothes that they have to wear.”

Moving forward 

The research conducted by Dr Oliver, Professor Vincent and Dr Pavlopoulou showed that there are some learning points from the pandemic about how to improve learning for children with SEND. It also showed that 70% of family carers report that their daily routines have changed. Importantly, many participants did not want to return to the pre-Covid world.

The pandemic, despite all of its negatives, also shed a light on the difficulties encountered in schools by many students with SEND and pushed schools to provide new, temporary solutions which could lead to permanent improvements.

The Frontier research also found that clear and regular communication with families was fundamental to building partnership and providing support. Instead of rare face-to-face meetings, which had been difficult for parents to attend due to childcare responsibilities, schools changed to more frequent online meetings in 2020, with some implementing weekly calls to families to discuss the week and any important school updates. 

Researchers believe that the focus should not only be on the mental health and wellbeing of students, but also on ensuring the safety and wellbeing of their families and believe this has positive consequences for children.  

If these adjustments are taken into consideration as we move towards a “new normal”, some of the disadvantages of the school experience for many students with SEND and their families could be improved so they are not as marginalised. 

It is important to recognise that not everyone thrives in the same environment as their peers and by providing students with different options and breaking the stigma around learning or socialising in the same way, many more students could feel more included.

Indeed, according to Dr Pavlopoulou, it is our societal understanding of neurodiversity that needs to change as well. “The key thing that the government needs to do is to develop a wider acceptance of autism in our societies and in our schools, and to recognise the mental health strains caused by the normal, typical school day environment and the expectations that we have around behaviour,” she says. 

“In fact, these can be very scary for those who are neurodivergent, because it means that they might often fail to meet them. It’s about moving from autism awareness to developing whole school support strategies.” 

Click here to read Dr Pavlopoulou and her colleagues’ research 

*Amy and Lily are not their real names 

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