When K-12 public schools shifted to online learning models during COVID-19, special
education directors scrambled to meet students’ needs while adhering to strict legal
requirements. University of Northern Colorado Ed.D. candidate Vanessa Giddings dug
deep into special education directors’ lived experiences in her dissertation, “Meeting
Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) and Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) Requirements
for Students with Disabilities During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Implications for Special
For over two decades, Giddings has worked as a teacher, principal and central office
administrator in Durango, Colorado. She’s the executive director of student support
services for Durango School District, encompassing 12 rural schools serving 5,200
students. Before enrolling in the Educational Leadership program, she completed two other graduate programs at UNC, earning a master’s in
Reading and an educational specialist degree in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies.
Giddings concentrated on special education to hone her leadership skills and knowledge.
Her doctoral program began with classes in Lowry every other weekend, then moved online.
While online learning is commonplace at most universities, for many K-12 schools,
it was unprecedented.
“There were lessons learned during the pandemic for how we can better meet the needs
of students with disabilities that we want to carry forward,” Giddings said, noting
that online, hybrid and in-person education was delivered over the three academic
years of her study, 2019-20, 2020-21 and 2021-22.
To gather data, she conducted two separate hour-long video interviews with six special
education directors throughout Colorado, representing three rural, two suburban and
one urban school district. Between interviews, she asked directors to creatively illuminate
their experiences using words or images, a process that prompted deeper reflection.
“We talked about how they met requirements for students during COVID, how moving to
online learning changed their work, and the impact of increasing technology use with
students and parents,” said Giddings.
Her research filled a gap by including professionals whose voices are underrepresented.
“These special education directors highlighted the innovations that improved education
for students with disabilities and discussed the challenges and barriers they experienced.
The data analysis revealed the special education directors in this study were able
to meet the requirements of FAPE and LRE for students with disabilities during the
COVID-19 pandemic with a focus on legal obligations, creativity in learning models
and communication across multidisciplinary teams,” Giddings explained.
Professor Linda Vogel, chair of the Leadership, Policy and Development department and coordinator of the
Educational Leadership and Policy Studies program, advised Giddings on her dissertation.
“I have known Vanessa for a while, and she is an amazing student, person, educator
and leader. She did an outstanding job with her coursework while doing a high-level
administration job and raising kids. And she completed her coursework and groundbreaking
dissertation in a speedy manner,” Vogel said.
Giddings’ committee nominated her for the Dean’s Outstanding Dissertation Award, and
Vogel has encouraged her to publish in academic and practitioner journals. She also
may present her research at a conference for school executives this summer.
“It poses a lot of challenges to meet the needs of special ed students in online environments.
How special ed directors fulfilled these requirements is necessary information in
the field. Practitioners can use her research as a basis for their decisions related
to special education online,” said Vogel.
Giddings’ project makes the case that revisiting the pandemic with the lens of improving
the future is a worthwhile undertaking applicable to many fields.
She’s completing her doctoral education in May 2023 and plans to continue studying
to benefit Spanish-speaking families.
“Families have the right and it is our privilege to serve them in the language they
know and love. We need people to meet them where they are and speak the language,”
Giddings said, describing her plans for studying Spanish next.
— written by Brenda Gillen