July 2, 2021, By Jenny Barker, Editorial Director
As the U.S. begins to rebuild from the pandemic, education is one area that may be forever changed. A rethinking of how we do school is underway, and some of the possibilities bring with them exciting new opportunities for students and staff alike to get the most out of a school day.
Looking to 2021–2022, school reopening plans are ranging from not opening initially to fully opening, from hybrid schedules to needing accommodations for families who choose to stay remote, and from staff being excited to get back into the classroom to staff who are choosing to work virtually. In the field of special education and related services, an online therapy solution is looking like a key piece for solving the complex puzzle—and during the past year, many in the school community have turned from skeptics to believers.
“We were apprehensive at first, but we did a lot of the training and the PresenceLearning team was great about making sure we had the right equipment. Our skepticism for using an online platform to serve students quickly turned into appreciation,” said Ellen Biller, director of special education for Page County Public Schools in Virginia.
Of Note: A therapy platform is more than a standard video conferencing tool. An engaging experience designed to serve students with special needs includes a platform with a content library of lessons and games, along with specialized features and equipment, such as a dynamic camera and video and a synchronized workspace.
In 2020–21, schools needed an immediate solution for serving students at home due to unexpected COVID-related school closures. The lessons learned and possibilities ahead provide an opportunity to rethink how we “do school,” particularly when it comes to supporting students with special needs. One superintendent summed it up: “There’s no going back now.” Others are saying much of the same.
“Innovation is happening in special education,” said Kate Eberle Walker, CEO of PresenceLearning. “We’ve talked to a lot of school leaders, and many of them are adding technology into their services with equity and access in mind. Schools have seen clearly how an online therapy solution can personalize the experience for students and staff. They have seen how it can remove barriers to serving students. And they know they need to be prepared for a world where we exhaust all options, including online services, before we say we cannot serve a student who needs therapy support.”
During 2021–2022, the needs will be bigger, more varied, and require greater flexibility. There is also a substantial amount of funding available for schools in the three rounds of relief packages which can open up opportunities for schools to navigate a changed world and, in some cases, build back with more sustainable solutions.
Here are the three predictions on the future of special education:
According to a recent study conducted by RAND Corp, two in 10 districts have already adopted, plan to adopt, or are considering adopting a virtual school model as part of their district portfolio, even after the COVID-19 pandemic is behind us. Among a range of reasons, district leaders cited student and parent demand for continuing various forms of online instruction. But, when it comes to special education and related services, the type of technology matters.
“We had been using a combination of two online videoconferencing tools, but they simply did not have the instructional functionality to support our programs,” said Melvin Diggs, executive director of Chatham County Schools’ Exceptional Children (EC) and Academically or Intellectually Gifted (AIG).
In order to fully meet the needs of their students, Diggs and his team deployed Therapy Essentials, which combines PresenceLearning’s platform, designed for clinicians by clinicians, along with access to a full set of assessments and professional training in delivering teletherapy. The platform enables in-school teams to serve students continuously at home or in school. The results were promising.
Deborah Daugherty, lead speech-language pathologist (SLP) in Chatham County Schools, described some students who flourished using online therapy, where they had previously been working more slowly during in-person services. One student who has autism spectrum disorder (ASD) stood out.
“He was always very resistant to working together in class,” said Daugherty. “When we started working this year with PresenceLearning, he was able to attend. He likes being on the computer, so talking to me through the computer and using headphones at home really broke down those hurdles. His cooperation has carried over to the classroom now that we are doing hybrid services.”
Research into how online therapy and learning can serve students with disabilities is also encouraging. According to the report, “Equity Matters: Digital & Online Learning for Students with Disabilities,” there is “a shared belief that the flexibility of digital learning materials, when combined with appropriately designed online delivery systems and instruction, can address the variable learning needs of elementary and secondary students with disabilities in ways difficult or impossible to otherwise achieve.” It further determines that a student’s lack of engagement and progress in a traditional school setting is often identified as another key reason for adding an online alternative. Most importantly, students need to be able to show up at the session for it to help them. The requirement to commute to a building for services can take a toll on student participation levels, particularly in a rural district, for instance, where the community is sparse, remote, or both—and where schools often grapple with distance.
Looking ahead, schools know they also need to be prepared in the coming year for ongoing shifts to remote learning, and be prepared in the future if a natural disaster, global health crisis, or another type of disruption strikes again. A school continuity plan is critical for minimizing gaps in services. Families and school boards expect them to be prepared. Even the classic snow day may be forever in the past for some communities.
“Choosing a platform solution to diversify your service offerings can increase staff, student, and parent happiness. Schools can scale and customize a hybrid solution however they see fit. Having online providers manage the things that can be done remotely—many assessments for example—can free up the onsite team to focus on those support services that must be done in-person,” said Stephanie Taylor, Ed.S, NCSP, clinical director of psychoeducational services at PresenceLearning.
The notion of human-centered design—or design thinking—encourages those in charge to set aside their own assumptions about the world in order to gain insight into their users and empathize with their users’ needs. This concept can apply to schools as well.
One of the key learnings for special education that emerged from the pandemic was in how technology can bring efficiencies. With an online therapy solution, providers and even some members of the school-based team no longer need to travel from home to school or from school to school. Instead they can spend more time working with students to address their IEP goals in a live, online session, which allows them to engage with students and parents in a meaningful and convenient way.
“Teletherapy can help to ensure that clinicians are spending their time in clinically-directed activities, which is really the best use of the district’s budget,” said Kristin Martinez, M.A., CCC-SLP, clinical director, SLP & OT, PresenceLearning. “Clinicians are able to focus their work and practice at the top of their license, meaning they are spending their time on work that only they are qualified to do—as opposed to tasks that could be completed by other staff. School administrators, therefore, can ensure they are getting the best use out of certified clinical staff to support compliance and student outcomes.”
Remote work can also be a solution for mitigating personnel shortages, which have long plagued special education programs in schools; innovative schools are already adjusting their mindset to contemplate new, remote employment opportunities that will attract more talent to their schools and help fill open positions. With an online therapy platform, district providers and other members of the school team are able to serve students from any location and improve work/life balance—and schools are able to retain a beloved and knowledgeable team member who has moved away.
“We’ve always struggled with staff leaving our rural area to work in the metropolitan parts of the state,” said Mike Lowers, executive director of the Central Kansas Coop in Education. “But having the PresenceLearning therapy platform in place has allowed us to retain those clinicians by converting them to remote employees. It’s a win-win for everyone—including the students who we know benefit from their services being delivered consistently by the same clinicians.”
Reports show that the payoffs in the workforce broadly include satisfaction and enhanced productivity among employees. Staff members also consider flexible schedules and locations as an employer benefit, with Gallup reporting that “nearly two-thirds of U.S. workers who have been working remotely during the pandemic would like to continue to do so.”
Prior to 2020, it was not uncommon for educators to be uneasy about the use of technology in the classroom. The Socratic method of teaching (built around a table for discussion) or the Latin term “assidere” (to sit with) has long been the guiding principle in schools. In the past, some educators may have been particularly hesitant to deploy technology in the classroom, when they could choose an in-person experience instead. But for other schools there was a movement toward integrating technology into special education services even before the pandemic—and COVID-19 has accelerated it.
The ongoing shortage of certified related service providers in many communities makes the case for tapping into an online network of skilled clinicians to help support students for regular, ongoing service delivery, or as the need arises (e.g., to sustain services during a team member’s maternity leave). Some students report that they enjoy working in an online modality. Today’s students are digital natives, so engaging with a therapist online is consistent with how they engage with other learning and with friends; and this service modality also can reduce some of the stigma associated with being “pulled” from class for therapy. Today’s learning environment includes all forms of computer-based lessons and activities, so teletherapy “blends” with what all students are doing throughout their school day.
Technology does not replace in-person services: best-in-class technology allows the same experienced, qualified clinicians to continue to deliver services regardless of in-person staffing shortages or students’ geography. Our children will need to thrive in virtual as well as in-person interactions in the future that awaits them. For learners, an online modality can suit them well, and it’s no surprise why: this is a generation of digital natives. A technology tool in the classroom can help reinforce what the student is learning—and enable each learner to practice what they need to work on and move at their own pace. It can also allow students to receive their services more privately, whether in school or at home. The student can sit at their desk with their laptop and headphones for some sessions—and no longer needs to be pulled out of the classroom as frequently. For in-school providers and directors, a technology platform that is secure and confidential is not a preference—it’s essential. They also value one that opens up access to a content library—games, lessons, and engaging activities—that helps them personalize the experience to each child’s interests and needs.
“There is a huge variety of interactive games and tools on the PresenceLearning platform, all of which keep the students eager to participate in therapy,” said Karen Totman, a school-based speech-language pathologist (SLP), at Maine School Administrative District 75 (MSAD-75). “I can choose a shark reward for the child who likes sharks, and easily create customized cards with /f/ sounds for the child who needs to work on that. Students stay much more engaged because they are actively participating in an activity that relates to their own life, rather than just watching me move things around on the screen as they had been doing in the spring before we adopted PresenceLearning.”
One more emerging area to keep an eye on is the possibility for technology to bridge public/private partnerships that meet each student where they are. When a student in a private school qualifies for services, the public school system where the child resides is mandated to provide them with evaluations and equitable services (according to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA, a federal law that requires each state to ensure a free appropriate public education). With the right technology, a public school team can help their private school peers integrate therapy seamlessly into the student’s classroom experience and be efficient in how their therapists use their time (i.e. not spending it in the car traveling to various sites). Therapists can also take part in IEP meetings remotely rather than spending travel time to meet with colleagues in various locations.
“The awareness and interest of parents in receiving services for their child in the online modality, and LEAs in delivering services online, has significantly increased during COVID-19 and will continue to gain ground in a post-COVID era,” said Eberle Walker.
If your school district is considering remote services, innovative staffing solutions, or new approaches to meeting the needs in your school communities, schedule a free consultation today.