As K-12 school leaders prepare for a new school year amid the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, there are many unknowns. But at least two things seem certain: Even if schools welcome students back into physical classrooms, remote learning will continue in some capacity this fall — and that will make it hard for schools to provide special-education instruction for everyone who needs it.
Here are five critical considerations to make as you look to level the playing field for all students, including students with disabilities, in the return to school.
1. The pandemic was highly disruptive to special-education instruction.
Educators and administrators worked long hours in pivoting to remote instruction in the middle of a school year. Despite incredible efforts, millions of students did not get the special-education services they needed when learning from home.
According to one survey, only 20 percent of students with IEPs received the services they were entitled to during the initial transition to remote learning. If that’s true, it means four out of five special-education students were forced to go without the instruction they deserved.
2. The disruption in services for students learning remotely can’t continue.
When schools were forced to shift to remote learning this past spring, they did so with almost no advance warning — leaving educators and administrators to adjust on the fly.
Schools got some leeway early on. But that won’t be the case come fall. School leaders need to at least consider the possibility that any failure to provide adequate special-education instruction could result in a legal challenge from parents.
The Education Department has made it clear that they expect schools to find a way to offer special-education services when school starts up again. That means planning. If your school or district doesn’t already have a re-entry plan for special education services, including contingencies for another potential shutdown, now is the time to get all that ironed out.
3. Online instruction is a viable solution — but it requires specific expertise.
Armed with the right tools and methodologies, students with disabilities can learn online as effectively as their peers. In fact, a growing body of research demonstrates that telepractice — or the use of technology and the Internet to provide speech, physical, or occupational therapy and other instructional services to special-needs students remotely — can be as effective or better than on-site instruction.
However, as educators discovered when they shifted to remote instruction this past spring, traditional classroom lessons don’t necessarily translate to the online model. There is a steep learning curve involved in delivering effective special-education instruction remotely — and teachers and parents both have roles to play.
Professional development, as we know it, has changed. But that doesn’t change the fact that teachers and staff need more support.
4. Even before the pandemic, many schools struggled to provide adequate services.
The pandemic has made it abundantly clear that K-12 schools need help delivering high-quality special-education instruction to students learning from home. This isn’t necessarily new information. Even before the pandemic, many schools struggled to meet the needs of students requiring special education.
Nationwide, schools are scrambling to find qualified special-education instructors. Heavy workloads for relatively low pay, too much paperwork, a stressful work environment, and feelings of professional isolation have converged to drive many special-education teachers out of the profession — while discouraging others from even trying.
Just how bad is it?
The number of special-education teachers in the United States has reportedly dropped by more than 17 percent over the last decade, revealing critical shortages in many states. Ed source reports that 60 percent of first-year special-education teachers in California (more than 5,000) taught without a full teaching credential during the 2017-18 school year, the latest year for which data exists.
And those numbers are likely to get even worse in the wake of the pandemic. Does your school or district have a plan for filling service gaps in the new school year? It should.
5. Having an experienced partner in providing special-education instruction can help.
It’s little surprise that schools could use assistance in meeting the needs of learners with disabilities, whether they’re learning online or in a face-to-face environment.
An experienced partner like TeleTeachers can help. TeleTeachers certified instructors and therapists are handpicked to work as an extension of your team. They attend team meetings and use your school’s materials — including lessons, readings, and themes — to help schools reach every child, in any type of learning environment.
K-12 leaders have a lot to think about when schools reopen this fall. Teaming up with an experienced partner to help deliver special-education instruction gives your team one less thing to worry about — and allows them to focus on the challenges ahead.
If you’re thinking about how to deliver special-education instruction this year, we’d love to share what we’ve learned in working with school districts in the run-up to back-to-school. Contact us here.