Unprecedented and unmasked: An analysis of how district policy documents frame special education during the COVID crisis


  • Sarah L. Woulfin University of Texas at Austin
  • Britney Jones University of Connecticut, Storrs




special education, districts, policy, framing theory, COVID-19


COVID-19 school closures disrupted special education. In Fall 2020, districts sought to reopen schools, recover from the shocks of the pandemic, and implement special education to serve students with disabilities. Using policy document data from the United States’ 25 largest school districts, we surface patterns in how districts communicated problems and solutions related to special education for the 2020-21 school year. Drawing on concepts from framing theory, we analyzed messaging on special education embedded in 71 district policy documents. Specifically, we assessed the nature and foci of 520 special education policy frames. The 520 frames contained ideas on problems and solutions regarding special education. Results indicate that this set of districts foregrounded how to implement the compliance and intervention models of special education in their formal communication but devoted less attention to the equity model of special education. Districts rarely defined underlying problems in special education implementation amid pandemic schooling. We discuss potential consequences of these patterns in messaging on special education. Finally, we present evidence- and theory-based recommendations for policy, practice, and scholarship on the implementation of special education with attention to recuperating from pandemic-related impacts.


Download data is not yet available.

Author Biographies

Sarah L. Woulfin, University of Texas at Austin

Dr. Woulfin, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Texas at Austin, uses organizational theory and qualitative methods to study pressing issues of district and school reform. Her research illuminates how infrastructure and leadership influence policy implementation and equitable educational change. She received her PhD in education from UC Berkeley.

Britney Jones, University of Connecticut, Storrs

Britney Jones received her PhD in learning, leadership, and education policy from the University of Connecticut. She also earned a bachelor’s degree and a master of arts in teaching degree, both from Brown University. Her research examines teachers’ sociopolitical consciousness and their understanding of culturally relevant pedagogy, and more specifically culturally relevant science teaching. Britney will join Trinity College as a visiting assistant professor of educational studies in the fall of 2022.





How to Cite

Woulfin, S. L., & Jones, B. (2022). Unprecedented and unmasked: An analysis of how district policy documents frame special education during the COVID crisis. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 30, (84). https://doi.org/10.14507/epaa.30.7219