Dr. Rebekah Young, executive director of the Institute for Disability Studies at the University of Southern Mississippi n Hattiesburg, said COVID brought attention to challenges faced by people with disabilities to the forefront. “COVID -19 really exacerbated some of the existing problems within our system,” Young noted.
Outbreaks in long-term care facilities and nursing homes for the elderly were rivalled by outbreaks in state-run residential facilities for individuals with intellectual disabilities and mental illness. Young said, in the midst of the pandemic, there was nowhere for the disabled to go — congregate settings such as group homes and institutions were increasingly risky, and many had difficulty receiving home-based care or community-based solutions.
Education systems were closed down, including K-12 schools as well as colleges and universities. But a subset of the school population was hit harder than others.
“Special education services were particularly impacted when schools went virtual,” Young said.
Students with individualized education plans or IEPs were often unable to cope with learning virtually at home. Computer learning cut out individualized instruction or reduced teachers’ ability to provide extra time to complete assignments for students requiring such, Young said.
Many students needing evaluation to diagnose learning disorders, autism, or other intellectual disabilities were subjected to long waits for the specialized testing needed. “There’s already a wait before COVID of four to six months,” Young said.
Joy Hogge, executive director of Families as Allies in Jackson, echoed Young’s observations. The pre-pandemic issues of school districts appearing to delay evaluations for special education for children with disabilities or giving parents inaccurate information on deadlines “have become much worse,” she said. “This results in families understandably being even more angry and frustrated when their children’s rights appear to have been violated.”
Hogge said she understands schools were stretched thin during the early days of the pandemic, providing different services to many subsets of students, including children who were food insecure and those that lacked reliable internet. But parents of children receiving special education services had a right to be frustrated, she said.
“None of that relieves school districts of their legal obligation to actively look for, evaluate and accommodate children with disabilities and for the Mississippi Department of Education to make sure that happens. The United States Department of Education under both the Trump and Biden administrations has been abundantly clear about that,” Hogge said.
Renee Gammill, a special-education teacher most recently working on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, said children in her classes definitely fell behind during the pandemic. Many children with severe physical disabilities or who were otherwise medically fragile simply stopped attending school. “There was a lot of fear in sending their students who were medically compromised,” Gammill said of parents.
Children often ignored masking and other quarantine protocols, Gammill said. She noted one administrator and her entire department refused to mask at her school, definitely sending mixed messages to students. “I didn’t think that was good leadership or good judgment. Then they all got sick,” Gammill said.
Even once the vaccines started rolling out, the National Council on Disabilities report found many instances of people with various disabiilties being locked out of the opportunity to receive the vaccines in a timely fashion.
Learning definitely suffered during the pandemic, particularly for the most vulnerable students, Gammill said. “Kids in the bottom two quartiles were allowed to fall further and further behind,”
Among the reasons: poor or no internet reception at home, lack of supervision of students during school time and a lack of understanding on the part of the parents to help their students operate the computers, Gammill said.
Gammill also said the increase in computers in the classroom was a positive outcome of the pandemic. “Now each student has their own computer. The pandemic forced that.”
‘Long COVID’ means virus is never really gone
Not addressed in the report is what various experts are calling “a mass disabling event”—colloquially known as “long COVID”, where systemic changes occur in the body after infection. Although it is known those with disabilities suffer more with COVID-19 once they catch it, very few scientific studies exist of members of this population, estimated to be over half of the 236 million people diagnosed with COVID-19 worldwide since December 2019, according to research by Penn State College of Medicine.
Zephyr Ostrowski, 28, of Milford, Indiana,, who is autistic, was working in a hot tub factory when news of the pandemic began to spread in February 2020. “There was no real plan by the company that was communicated to the employees, which was all too common in the time I was there. Anxiety was in the air along with the earliest conspiracies. ‘Flatten the curve’ was the catchphrase in the news,” Ostrowski said.
The company limited its sanitation plan to the main offices, leaving workers on the factory floor vulnerable. “As a means to protect myself I lied and said that my partner contracted COVID and I had to stay home.” Because the government deemed the company a nonessential business, the factory halted production, Ostrowski said.
Ostrowski’s partner, however, was considered an essential worker, leaving Ostrowski fearful he would bring the virus home. Then in January 2021, Ostrowski’s partner lost his sense of taste and smell while recovering from what they thought was a cold. Both were diagnosed with COVID. The partner recovered. Ostrowski did not.
Ostrowski developed an aversion to most smells, lapses in memory, brain fog, fatigue and severe sciatica that required use of a cane. Ostrowski’s been turned down for disability benefits. Now a year into what is known as “long COVID,” Ostrowski feels bleak about the future. “I don’t expect to be back to where I was medically before the pandemic,” Ostrowski said. “The concept of ‘living with COVID’ that’s been adopted is defeatist at best and nihilistic at worst, all of this assuming that you have never and will never contract it.”