Optimizing Distance Learning for Students with Special Needs

By Claudia L’Amoreaux, Writer, April 26, 2021

In the wake of sudden school closures triggered by the COVID-19 crisis in the spring of the 2019–2020 school year, districts across the country struggled to adjust rapidly to keep students learning. Schools scrambled to improvise overnight how to implement learning across the curriculum and grades for students confined to their homes, many with parents or caregivers working from home, furloughed, or at risk as “front line” workers. Teachers and therapists had to master new technologies with little support and adapt classroom-based lesson plans and strategies to an unfamiliar online environment. District transition plans to provide distance learning to students with special needs were frequently back-burnered while districts focused on basic issues like supplying computers and bandwidth. Teachers struggled to contact students and their families, and vast numbers of students had their cameras off or just went missing entirely from improvised online classes. 

In a U.S.News & World Report article from April, 2020, Senior Education Writer Lauren Camera wrote: 

“In fact, only 27% of parents of children in public schools in New York reported that schools were providing instructional materials for students with disabilities, according to a poll of 1,200 parents commissioned by The Education Trust and conducted by Global Strategy Group from March 25 to April 1. A separate poll they conducted among 1,200 parents in California during the same timespan shows that just 24% reported that schools were providing instructional material for students with disabilities.”

Early in the pandemic, educators predicted that this crisis would have a profound impact on learning. Today, the data is coming in—the pandemic has disrupted learning and widened gaps that may take years to overcome. 


Benefits of Online Learning for Special Education

When the pandemic started, schools could not predict how long it would last. Getting students back into classrooms has proven to be much more difficult than anticipated due to teacher and parent concerns about risk, and larger budgets required to make classrooms safe, from investment in personal protective equipment (PPE) to improved ventilation. With the challenges of returning to in-person classrooms, remote learning has demonstrated a wide range of benefits for special education during the 2019–2020 school year. Research by MCH Strategic Data reports that 70% of school districts have increased their investments in technology to support student access to online learning. As schools try to make plans for Summer 2021, and the 2021–2022 school year, the many advantages of providing and maintaining a robust remote learning option for special education have become clear. 


Special Education Services 

Preliminary data from research cited in the new whitepaper, “Rural America in Focus: Delivering on the Promise of Special Education Related Services,” suggests that teletherapy for children is effective, though more rigorous studies need to be conducted. At Kent State and Bowling Green State universities, researchers studied a small group of 13 students in K-6 grades in rural areas with speech-language disorders and saw early signs that some students “demonstrated a greater mastery of speech sounds when they did telepractice therapy.” Leading professional organizations such as ASHA, AOTA, and the APA also recognize teletherapy as an appropriate model for service delivery for speech-language therapy, occupational therapy, and behavioral and mental health therapy. 

Given training and a platform designed specifically for teletherapy, SLPs, OTs, school psychologists, and social workers can provide services that are similar to in-person experiences—administering assessments, writing evaluations, preparing IEPs and goals for students, reporting on student progress, and meeting with parents and staff—all in a safe and meaningful way. And because teletherapy eliminates time-consuming commutes across large districts, and typical in-person school duties, teletherapists can focus their efforts on providing therapy for their students   


Improved Outcomes with Distance Learning for Students in Special Education

PresenceLearning, a leader in providing teletherapy to schools—both brick and mortar, and virtual schools—used expertise gained over 3 million sessions in 12 years to help school districts across the country respond and adapt quickly, to ensure students with special needs were not lost in the shuffle and left to suffer setbacks in their learning. PresenceLearning’s network of providers has been able to solve clinician shortages, increase access to specialists, and reduce caseload and assessment backlogs. In addition, PresenceLearning has trained school districts’ own providers on the PresenceLearning platform to offer services via teletherapy, including: administering assessments, writing evaluations, preparing IEPs and goals, reporting on student progress, and more. The PresenceLearning platform provides providers and schools powerful progress tracking tools to understand student progress, monitor improved outcomes, and document session notes in real-time. School staff can log in and view status reports, check on students’ progress towards their IEP goals, review assignments, and find providers’ contact information for ease of communication. 

And to increase student engagement and motivation for improved outcomes, therapists can easily customize their therapy sessions based on curricula and particular topics that are being discussed in students’ classes, while incorporating popular games such as “Go Fish,” and a wide range of playful stickers, spinners, and interactives. 


The Hybrid Model Approach to Teach Students during COVID-19

One year into the pandemic, school districts are under great pressure to reopen schools. Until vaccines are readily available for teachers and students, reopening generally necessitates operating at less than full capacity to accommodate social distancing. Younger students and students with disabilities are prioritized in most districts to return to in-person classrooms full-time first. But the data shows this is not happening consistently. 

A federal survey looking at 4th graders and 8th graders nationally showed that in January, 2021, 43% of 4th graders and 48 percent of 8th graders were still learning full time from home. Regarding students with disabilities, an EducationWeek article reports that the survey found:  

“…while many districts said they’d planned to prioritize certain groups of vulnerable students to return to classrooms first, the data do not suggest that such plans led to widespread differences in in-person attendance patterns. Schools notably said in the survey that they prioritized students with disabilities for full-time, in person learning, but fewer than half of those students in 4th grade were doing so.”

Hybrid models with both in-person and online learning vary greatly from state to state and district to district. For example, a plan for Ann Arbor schools proposes: “25 percent to 50 percent of students could have an in-person learning experience one to two days per week. On the other days of the week, students would participate in online learning.” And California public schools have considered several models including “two day rotation blended learning,” an “A/B blended learning model,”  “looping structure,” and “early/late staggered schedules.” But because COVID-19 cases can cause sudden closures, the situation is fluid and unpredictable and will remain so for some time, especially given new research coming in on the COVID-19 variants that are shown to be infecting more younger children.

According to data from 2020 and early 2021 by MCH Strategic Research: 52% of school districts were offering hybrid models; 22% of school districts were offering online learning only, and 19% of school districts were providing only in-person classes. EducationWeek has created a school opening tracker to stay on top of this dynamic situation. They report that “As of April 6, 2021, 47 member districts in the Council of the Great City Schools—some of the largest school districts in the U.S.—are open for wide-scale in-person learning. 17 more districts are open for limited in-person learning.”

Investment by school districts in technology, and the programs and professional development required to effectively support online learning will provide a long term sustainable solution for the hybrid model going forward, to keep students learning and receiving the services they need, whether schools are responding to the twists and turns ahead in the COVID-19 crisis, or to the inevitable other crises on the rise like wildfires and superstorms.


Remote Learning as an Ongoing Solution Throughout COVID-19 and Beyond

Schools that have invested in remote learning models and teletherapy solutions will be best prepared to ensure all their students receive the services and support they need. Having a robust online learning and therapy solution in place, and professional development to support staff will prevent learning loss during this ongoing crisis. And once the pandemic is resolved, school districts will continue to benefit from the investment and efforts made to put in place powerful solutions like the PresenceLearning platform. 

If you are interested in learning more, schedule a free consultation with PL.