The Story Of Chatham County Schools
When school districts across the country shifted to remote learning in spring 2020, Chatham County Schools was one among many that found standard video conferencing platforms to be inadequate for their students with special needs. And, like many school systems, they had to multitask with multiple online platforms — an approach that school staff and families found to be disorienting. In June 2020, the school system started planning for a solution for 2020–2021. It would be an unprecedented year, and supporting students with special needs was top of mind.
Their goals in special education and related services were well thought out, but numerous:
Ensure all students with individual needs have full access to their assessments, services, and support team, no matter what the circumstances of the world around them.
Provide specially designed instruction (SDI) in a virtual way, across all environments.
Provide a safe, effective method of service delivery for the school team and their related service providers.
Ease planning time for teachers and staff and support collaboration.
Minimize challenges for parents and caregivers.
Streamline their approach to online platforms and ensure FERPA compliance.
Among their many objectives, safety was a top concern for both students and staff. It was also essential to their operating model.
“We had to find an approach that would allow us to be flexible with staff’s need for safety during COVID-19 and enable us to focus more on instructional programming as a result,” said Diggs.
The school system’s special education team, with support from the school system’s and schools’ leadership, explored solutions throughout the summer of 2020. After a careful search, they chose PresenceLearning’s teletherapy solution, Teletherapy Essentials.
“PresenceLearning took a lot of worry off the table, in not having to worry about the human resources side of things. In terms of retention, it also gives our service providers and teachers another option — in serving their students online,” said Diggs.
With twelve years of experience in providing teletherapy and three million student sessions to date (and growing), PresenceLearning has long partnered with schools to support their students with its teletherapy platform and network of highly skilled clinicians. In response to the pandemic and after listening to the specific needs of school partners, PresenceLearning saw an opportunity to help school-based teams serve their students directly.
“PresenceLearning is one of the few of its kind that is intentionally working to improve itself,” said Debbie Daugherty MA, CCC-SLP, lead Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP). “Sometimes with school partners…you get what you get. That’s not the case with PresenceLearning. Their team is always asking for feedback and responding with modifications that make the platform more user friendly.”
For many of the staff members who had worked with students primarily in the school building, training was vital to get up and running and serve students in a remote or hybrid environment.
“This was my first year as the lead speech language pathologist in Chatham County Schools,” said Daugherty. “I have about seven years of experience as an SLP and have worked with pre-K through high school students. But I did not have any teletherapy experience prior to the COVID shutdown. Most of the county's SLPs did not have any teletherapy experience prior to last spring.”
What were some of the school system’s favorite features in the platform? According to Diggs, the platform’s rich library of content and assessments helped his staff immensely.
“The content takes away the burden of having to buy, create, and store a range of materials,” he said. “That decreases planning time for us and leaves our team more time for collaboration and working with students. That really matters.”
PresenceLearning provides content, such as activities and assessments, that are already loaded into the platform. School teams can easily access these as they design sessions to meet each individual student’s needs. They also have the ability to upload and share their own content with students and colleagues.
For Kate Sugg MS OT/L, lead occupational therapist for Chatham County Schools, a favorite aspect is accessibility—not just for students, but for parents too. She and her colleagues discovered an opportunity for efficiency.
“We found that parents were getting overwhelmed with the number of links and platforms they were tasked with using,” said Sugg. “The special education team had the idea of making a calendar for families, which has really helped existing families and has particularly helped in onboarding new families moving into the district. At 10 a.m., for example, parents and students simply have to click into this one link in the PDF we provide in the calendar—and it launches the platform browser for them immediately.”
STUDENTS IN FOCUS
Daugherty was particularly delighted to see some students who really flourished using teletherapy, where they had previously been working more slowly during in-person services. Were there particular moments of breakthrough that really stand out? Daugherty said two examples came to mind immediately. The first is a student she works with who is on the spectrum and has a tough time focusing.
“He was always very resistant to working together in class,” she said. “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.”
Daugherty explained that, even when they’re in the classroom together, she still has him log on to the platform so they can work through the experience and share a computer screen.
“Just the fact that we are getting more quality working time has made a difference for this student,” she said.
The second student found the computer to be a comfortable format for speech therapy.
“I have another student who has some really persistent articulation errors. She did not like to be removed from her classroom nor did she want me to work with her in the classroom. She has been a lot happier working on the computer and she's been making progress. Her teacher told me that when the student was reading, she said ‘sausage’ correctly all on her own. They were both really excited about that.”
PEER-TO-PEER: ADVICE FOR OTHER SCHOOLS
Looking ahead, Diggs has advice for his peers in other school districts across the country who are seeking solutions to support their related service providers and students.
“I would advise schools to give PresenceLearning a strong consideration as a primary learning platform to support students with IEPs,” he said. “The platform presents a lot of the key components necessary to provide specially designed instruction.”
Chatham County Schools is also considering additional support from PresenceLearning in addressing compensatory services and an extended school year ahead, a challenge that many schools are facing right now. Parents will have the choice for their children, but there may be benefits in the online format.
“A huge pro of the online approach is having the flexibility to ensure services can take place, without needing to contract additional providers for in-person services for some students,” said Diggs. “We are trying to innovate and stay ahead of the curve.”
What would the Chatham County Schools team say overall about the impact of PresenceLearning?
“This has been a game changer,” said Diggs. “The platform supports a range of the learning needs in our school system in a different type of way. With PresenceLearning in place, we know we can game plan ahead for the unknown and be ready to face uncertain times in our community—during COVID-19 and beyond.”