“Long COVID” Cognitive Impairments and Their Implications for the Special Education Community

Photo credit: Marco Verch

On July 22, 2021, The Lancet published an article by Adam Hampshire, et. al., in which the findings reported that COVID-19 causes long-term cognitive impairments among many of those who have been ill with it, particularly those who have been hospitalized with severe forms of the illness and those diagnosed with COVID-19 but not hospitalized. I won’t rehash the entire article here. Follow the link to read it for the details.

In today’s post/podcast, I’m summarizing the findings of this body of research and discussing their implications for the special education community. First, let’s look at what the cognitive impairments caused by COVID-19 can look like, and then we’ll talk about what this means for the special education community.

This research by Hampshire and his team specifically found: “[The] results [of this study] accord with reports of ‘Long Covid’ cognitive symptoms that persist into the early-chronic phase. They should act as a clarion call for further research with longitudinal and neuroimaging cohorts to plot recovery trajectories and identify the biological basis of cognitive deficits in SARS-COV-2 survivors.”

So, basically, there is evidence to support that if a person gets sick with COVID-19, they can experience cognitive impairments that last a long time, perhaps permanently, and further research is needed to understand the long-term consequences of millions of Americans having their cognitive functioning reduced by COVID-19. For our kids about to go back to in-person learning, the questions become about whether they will end up subjects in that research after getting COVID-19 and experiencing cognitive impairments, and what will be done to benefit them if they are affected in such a way.

The symptoms, specifically, were reported by Hampshire and his team as: “… colloquial reports of ‘brain fog,’ … low energy, problems concentrating, disorientation, and difficulty finding the right words.” Further, there is evidence that “… COVID-19 patients can develop a range of neurological complications including those arising from stroke, encephalopathies, inflammatory syndrome, microbleeds, and autoimmune responses,” any of which can cause brain damage or impairment.

As children face returning to school as the Delta Variant of COVID-19 rages through unvaccinated populations, including children under 12 who are not eligible for vaccination, all parents in their right mind are worried about their children getting sick. The risk of long-term cognitive impairment during the critical learning years of child development and/or permanent brain damage are now yet more reasons for parents to want to keep COVID-19 far, far away from their children.

The sad reality is that a lot of children in areas of the country with low vaccination rates, many of which are communities compromised by poverty and reduced access to resources in the first place, are going to get COVID-19, and a fair number of those that survive are going to experience cognitive impairments as a result. This means a whole new cohort of children entering special education who otherwise would not have required it, thereby increasing the special education burden of every local, state, and federal education agency.

For those children already on IEPs who get sick with COVID-19 only to be further cognitively impaired by it, we’re going to see changes in their present levels of performance that make their current IEPs no longer appropriate to all of their needs. They are likely to experience regression and an increased need for supports and services in their IEPs, meaning yet another increase in the burden on local, state, and federal education agencies.

This is, of course, preventable with appropriate safety measures. The problem is that we have some local and state leaders doing everything they can to spread the disease, banning mask mandates in our public schools, for Christ’s sake! We have millions of unvaccinated children expected to co-mingle in crowded spaces that will become super-spreader sites that induce cognitive impairments among the students who are there for the purpose of enhancing their cognitive abilities.

And, it’s the same conservative leaders who are pushing to ban mask mandates in schools who will refuse to fund their students’ special education services when they come back to school with cognitive impairments later on. Parents can fight together now to prevent their children from becoming cognitively impaired, or at least more impaired than they already are, by pushing for appropriate safety measures in our public schools, or a smaller but significant number of them can fight later on for special education services for their children who experience “Long COVID” and resulting neurological impairments.

Aside from the obvious lingering health problems that children who experience and survive COVID-19 can have, which will require ongoing care that parents previously weren’t having to provide, there are the added complications of learning problems that will require parents to exhaust themselves further to pursue. Special education was already falling grossly short of the mark, but we’re now in the process of creating the next large population to blaze a litigation trail across the judiciary with special education cases: COVID-related impairments.

As it stands, regardless of the symptoms, if a student who survives COVID-19 ends up with long-lasting health and/or cognitive problems that interfere with access to learning, the fact that it’s the result of COVID-19 could cause that student to meet criteria for “Other Health Impairment (OHI),” under special education law [34 CFR Sec. 300.8(a)(1)]. It’s not like a new eligibility category would need to be created.

The special education world went through similar chaos during the 1990s when Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders (ADHDs) first became understood and widely recognized as an actual set of conditions. The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) ran a great big study on ADHDs. I remember attending a panel discussion by individuals who had participated in the study back in the day.

Back then, ChADD (Children with Attention Deficit Disorders, as it was known back then), was big on the advocacy scene while litigation went forward in the courts to determine if kids with ADHDs were eligible for special education. The ultimate outcome was that there didn’t need to be a separate eligibility category for ADHDs because they were captured by either the Specific Learning Disability (SLD) or OHI categories, depending on how each affected child experienced it.

Back in the early 1990s, I went to a speaking engagement at which the founder of ChADD, who was also one of the parents taking this landmark litigation forward, described the favorable outcomes the litigation had achieved, but also how awful it was to have to go through all of that and how vindicated his family felt in the end, particularly his child with ADHD.

I see the same thing happening here with kids who will be disabled by COVID-19 to such a marked degree that they require special education and related services in order to access education, and kids who already needed special education who will now become even more greatly compromised than they already were after surviving COVID-19. Plus, I see this happening the most in the states and locales least likely to protect their children against COVID-19, which are also the states and locales least likely to comply with special education law.

Far right politics have undermined the success of special education at the local and state levels since special education law was created. In fact, the laws that protect our children with special needs were created in response to these far right political efforts to deny them access to education. The situation has literally become life with permanent disability or death for far too many of our children, and still the public scrutiny on the right wing fuckery that goes on in public education has not become intense enough to change the broken system.

How much more broken will the system become when it has killed a percentage of its students and permanently disabled yet another percentage who will now require special education when they didn’t before or who will now need more intensive special education above and beyond what they were previously getting? At what point in the future will all of the associated costs created by neglecting our kids now finally matter enough for the tax-fattened hyenas that are undermining public education from within to realize it’s in their best political interests to actually protect and educate their students?

Political extremism in any form will derail the most sensibly created system, but public education was not sensibly created for the present times and the political extremism has always been part of it. Many have the misconception that public education stopped serving as an arm of the Patriarchy once it became a female-dominated profession. But, there is nothing professional about a bunch of “Karens” sitting around a table passing judgment over a single, low-income mom of color with a kid who has a mental health disorder and related behavior problems instead of helping her and her child.

Thankfully, the field is changing and we have more scientifically-minded people entering special education, but there are still a lot of the old cronies hanging in there for as long as they can before grabbing their pensions and running off into the sunset, leaving all kinds of poorly educated, if not traumatized, children in their wake. This country is going to through a reckoning in which ethics and the rule of law are at the heart and soul of it all. Ethics and the rule of law have always been the heart and soul of special education disputes, and I can only see what is happening on the national level as an expansion of what I’ve been fighting for the last 30 years.

The thing that also is getting lost in this debate is the impact of “Long COVID” on teachers, specialists, and administrators. How does inducing cognitive impairment among a public education agency’s personnel serve the public good? How is that an appropriate employment practice for any employer? Why are we willing to impair the minds meant to sharpen the minds of our children? How is this self-preservation as a species?

As a tough old broad who has already seen the kinds of bullshit these people can pull, and given how much bullshit the American public is starting to realize can happen within our supposedly democratic government based on what is now coming out about the 45th President’s attempted soft coup d’etat following the 2020 election, I don’t think I’m being hyperbolic or alarmist when I point out the travesty we’re creating for ourselves in increased special education expenditures by failing to prevent childhood cognitive impairments as a result of “Long COVID.” I’m hoping this message isn’t falling on deaf ears.

Anne M. Zachry, M.A. Ed. Psych. on Linkedin
Anne M. Zachry, M.A. Ed. Psych.
Anne M. Zachry, M.A. Ed. Psych.
Anne has worked as a special education and disability resource lay advocate since 1991 and as a paralegal to attorneys working in special education and disability rights law since 2005. She earned her master's degree in educational psychology in 2013, with emphasis on human development, learning and memory, evidence-based instruction, and educational program design and evaluation. She has received additional training in mediation and post-graduate studies in applied behavioral analysis and individualized educational data collection methodologies.

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