Carnegie Mellon University
September 24, 2021

Williamson Seeks Path Forward for Inclusive Education

By Ann Lyon Ritchie

Stacy Kish
  • Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences
  • 412-268-9309

The lockdown of schools during the COVID-19 pandemic drastically changed the education system with schools physically closing and switching to online learning, some for more than a year.

Special-needs education, which often relies on individualized in-person learning for social interactions and important life skills, came to a halt when children had to come home.

"Children were left behind as the pandemic began and continued," Carnegie Mellon University senior Madison Williamson said. In Pennsylvania, roughly 18% of K-12 students are enrolled in special education and approximately 21% of them are enrolled in the Pittsburgh Public Schools. These learners could no longer access individualized support for autism, hearing impairments, intellectual disabilities, specific learning disabilities and other needs.

Williamson, who is studying psychology, wants to measure the impact that the pandemic has had on K-12 special education. Through surveying parents, teachers and administrators in the Pittsburgh region, she aims to identify gaps in the learning experiences for students who access special education services so that knowledge can be used to create more accommodating learning opportunities in the future.

"I thought a lot about how children who need accommodations were struggling to learn at home," Williamson said.

A friend in high school with Down syndrome gave Williamson some insight. His family arranged an in-home aide to work with him on schoolwork, but opportunities for social development and important life-skills learning were nonexistent. His career readiness program, a part-time cleaning job at a local hospital, evaporated.

"He has experienced a level of confusion throughout the pandemic, without really knowing what's going on, but just knowing he isn't able to do the things that he wants to do," Williamson said.

Studies have shown that learning has been difficult during the pandemic for all students, due to inconsistency in the classroom, distractions at home and lack of social support. Williamson noted that current research examines data from spring 2020 and does not focus on atypical learners.

"It's possible that major gaps in learning were created. As we make a transition out of the pandemic, steps should be taken to fill in these gaps," Williamson said.

She will continue her work through the school year. Her research is funded through the Dietrich Honors Fellowship Program. Through interviews she conducted this past summer, Williamson said she already sees broad differences in the preparedness of private schools compared to public schools, some of which lacked infrastructure to offer online education for several months.

"[By comparison] a private school was up and running an online school environment within two weeks," Williamson said.

Anna Fisher, associate professor of psychology and director of CMU's Summer Program for Undergraduate Researchers, and Sharon Carver, associate dean for educational affairs in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences and director of the Children's School, have advised Williamson on the project.

"Research experience is, of course, important for students who are planning to go to graduate school, but research experience can be beneficial for all students — no matter their future career plans," Fisher said. "Understanding how research is conducted, how data are analyzed, how results are interpreted and how findings are communicated to the broader community is important for making decisions in many aspects of our lives — from understanding evidence about vaccination to understanding evidence about reading programs, among many other aspects of our lives."

Williamson's research experience has been integral to her undergraduate studies. She began as an undecided major.

"I chose CMU because it's strong in many different fields. There were so many opportunities, and CMU offered an environment that was going to be academically challenging for me," Williamson said.

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