Maintaining Special Education Services During COVID-19

Maintaining Special Education Services During COVID-19

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to run its course, questions abound regarding what the 2020–2021 academic year will look like for students, teachers, and other members of the school community. Indeed, many decision-makers spent the summer months scrambling for extra funding to support smaller class sizes, reduced busing, strict cleaning regimens, and other brick-and-mortar operational precautions in the fall—all while fortifying virtual learning frameworks in the event of prolonged closures.

Last spring's abrupt switch to distance learning caused disruption across the student population, with individuals dependent upon special education services being particularly impacted. A National Public Radio report underscored this issue by spotlighting Jacob Murasko, a student whose special accommodations were not met by the remote learning packets sent home by his school.

Despite having no educational background, Jacob's mother reported attempting to meet his accommodations herself in a bid to minimize the upheaval of his school closing its doors.

"He needs it very simplified in order for him to learn it," she told the news source. "If there's no accommodations or modifications for him, he really can't attend to that lesson plan unless I modify it for him."

Given the persistence of the COVID-19 crisis, many school districts anticipate relying on alternatives to in-classroom learning for at least part of the 2020–2021 academic year. To support students with special needs during this challenging time, parents and teachers may consider keeping the following approaches in mind.

Communicate and connect with other members of students' support systems

While the term "special education" is broad, individual students have their own specific needs, which can pose a challenge in terms of distance learning. As Edutopia's Nora Fleming noted, teachers facing continued hybrid or online-only instruction are questioning "how they can provide sufficient support for each of their students who each have very different requirements to learn." The fact that these learners each have differing levels of at-home support further complicate the issue—and this is where communication and connection come into play.

According to Fleming, reaching out to families is a good way for special education teachers to assess their students' virtual setups, including internet access, digital device availability, and degree of parent/caregiver involvement. By the same token, establishing this connection opens the lines of communication for families seeking updates, feedback, and guidance.

Customize students' virtual learning to uphold IEPs

For many school districts, online learning has posed difficulties in terms of complying with the federally mandated individualized education programs (IEPs) that ensure all students receive access to an equitable education.

As described in an article about how Minneapolis-area students with special needs are adjusting to distance learning, parents and teachers have had to get creative when it comes to upholding IEPs in the era of the coronavirus. For instance, the mother of an autistic fourth-grader accustomed to taking breaks in his school's sensory gym reported sending her son outside to climb trees instead. Meanwhile, the parents of a 10th-grader with an intellectual disability worked to "declutter her virtual space" after she became overwhelmed by the number of emails she was receiving from school.

Pool experiences and resources

Even educators whose districts have committed to a hybrid or online-only instructional approach for the foreseeable future are in a considerably better position than they were a few months ago, thanks to valuable lessons learned from spring shutdowns. That said, teachers can never be too prepared.

With this in mind, a group of education organizations including the American Federation of Teachers has created the Educating All Learners website to facilitate "continuity of special education services during remote instruction." Although the site does not explicitly endorse particular methods or tactics, its wealth of "practical, actionable" recommendations have been purposefully chosen and vetted by a network of professionals. Reflections on the efficacy of approaches recently piloted with students are also included.

Be patient

Last but by no means least, it's important to remember that our school communities are grappling with what a special report from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development termed "a seismic shift in context." Maintaining special education services despite the disruption of COVID-19 is key, but so too is being patient and flexible in this tumultuous time.

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