Coronavirus (COVID-19) is on its way to impacting schools across the United States. Coronavirus has already impacted millions of students around the globe. Schools are starting to close in parts of the United States as the virus starts to spread. Coronavirus teleschooling has been recommended by Nancy Messonnier, a director at the CDC. While that might make sense for general education students, it poses particular problems for special education students and teachers. You should be communicating with your administration about what plans they have regarding coronavirus. Also, don’t panic. My first year teaching, my district had an extended closure due to the Swine Flu. It wasn’t ideal to lose the instructional days, but the district took good care of the situation.
Teleschooling Because of Coronavirus
Does your school have a plan for handling this contagious virus? Some schools may be planning to close and clean, while others might plan to do teleschooling instead. I have not yet worked for a district that planned on teleschooling. Most of the schools I’ve taught in have been Title I schools. Not all students had technology access with internet at home. For many kids around the country, technology access is still a luxury. For special education students, if your district is still open via teleschooling, there are important considerations to ensure compliance with special education laws. I’m not a legal expert on these things, but your district should be thinking about these issues and talking with their lawyers to ensure that the needs of all students are met during this time.
In Class Support Service Minutes
Do you support students who have in class support minutes? Perhaps a paraprofessional or a special education teacher comes into the class to support kids. What would this support look like in a coronavirus teleschooling situation? It’s not likely the minutes in your IEP include a caveat about teleschooling. Although rare, pandemics are something districts can predict as something that will be likely eventually, similar to planning for flooding or other natural disasters. I’m not a lawyer, and I’m not sure how this scenario would play out in court. But I know as special education teachers, we all want to stay out of the courtroom and we all want to do right by our kids in the first place.
With some creativity, you might be able to continue to provide these minutes. Could you have a phone conference with a student in a small group or individually about questions they have on their work? Take a look at your caseload and schedule now and think about how you might be able to arrange for this to happen. Keep in mind, if your district does teleschooling, not every kid will be doing school at exactly the same time of day. Families are going to have to juggle unexpected childcare arrangements and that means unusual schedules. While being creative, it’s also important we think about how these choices will impact the student’s Least Restrictive Environment. When the whole school is in a much more restrictive setting similar to homebound placement for everybody, how much does LRE even matter? I don’t have the answers to this, but hopefully your administrator or district lawyers can provide guidance.
Speech Language Therapy
Do your students get Speech Language Therapy services? Have a chat with your SLP. They might already have a plan for serving kids by internet or even by phone to continue work on speech IEP goals. If school is officially in session even if it is teleschooling, the speech service minutes and goals in the IEP may remain active.
Occupational Therapy, Physical Therapy, and Adapted PE
Do you have students who need OT, PT, or APE? I certainly have taught kids with these services. These services are very hands on. If your district plans to implement telecommuting, you should ask your administrators how these services will be provided, and if they legally will need to be provided during the telecommuting period. Would therapists be responsible for taking big equipment like standers and walkers to students homes? How would the additional travel time for therapists be managed? Could the school allow the small number of students needing these services to come to school to get their services with a thorough cleaning in between? Or even separate rooms used for each student to avoid potential virus spread? Remember to think about the transportation aspects of this as well.
Remember, the kids who need these services need them in order to access the curriculum. It’s important that we consider how all students will access curriculum during a teleschooling event.
If your school is going to do coronavirus teleschooling, do you know how you will take data on your students goals? Unless their parent is unusually skilled, they might not understand how to count prompts and tally them on a sheet for you if you are doing discrete trial testing. Do you have a way to track what modifications and accommodations are being used for the student? Behavior and life skills goals would be particularly difficult to track. First, the setting isn’t the same, and we know that skills do not always generalize. A student could be better or worse at any particular skill at home.
Here are some examples. If you have a student who is working on a hand washing goal, how would you be able to take data on that without being present? It seems kinda creepy to ask the parents to Skype in for a toilet visit, doesn’t it? Eek! And I’m not sure about the legality of asking the parents to track that data either seeing as it is the teacher/school’s responsibility. For students with serious behaviors like hitting and eloping, taking data on these items might be impossible at worst or pointless because the trigger for the behavior may not even be present.
Personal Care Services
If you teach in a developmental life skills class, many of your students may have personal care services included in their IEPs. It is worth asking how these personal care services should be addressed during a telecommuting situation. Rememeber, the SHARS forms you fill out are to help reimburse the district for these services. If the district isn’t providing the service, not only could the IEP be out of compliance, but your district could be loosing money too. It’s important to keep in mind that these personal care services often involve bodily fluids and so there is more risk in these situations too. If you’re in this situation, you should have been trained on proper glove procedures and hand washing already.
English as a Second Language and Bilingual Education
You might have students who receive support via ESL or Bilingual Education programs. While these programs aren’t special education specific, it’s important we consider this need for students too. For students who need ESL support, do you have ways to help support and develop new vocabulary? Could you send families labels with English words, words in their native language, and pictures to support learning? Can you have students work together remotely via phone calls or video chat? Maybe kids could do a show and tell online in pairs about something important to them.
Deaf and Visually Impaired Students
Students who are deaf and visually impaired will have increased difficulty with teleschooling. Students who are deaf need visuals and sometimes amplification to support their learning. They may need a sign language interpreter to assist them. Blind students will need audio and tactile access to the curriculum. They may need access to a brailler and/or a slate and stylus at home. Often these devices are shared among students in schools, but in a teleschooling environment, students would need access to these items at home. Keep in mind that some students are deaf and blind. They deserve access to the curriculum just as much as any other student does.
How does your district’s plan ensure that students like them will be supported instead of left behind? Does your district have the resources to educate these kids at home? If not, could you get creative in the way that students turn in work? Perhaps students could have a choice in the way they turn in an assignment. Some might want to record a video, others might want to record audio only, and others might choose to illustrate a comic about what they learn. Think about your student’s output at school and how that can be replicated at home.
Medically Fragile Students and Coronavirus Teleschooling
It’s important we consider medically fragile students. While currently COVID-19 is showing more mild symptoms in children than adults, for some of our kids, any respiratory illness can land them in the hospital with their lives in danger. You should have a plan in place to help protect them. Even if your school doesn’t close, parents may keep their students home to avoid the risk. If you don’t have a plan in place for special considerations to these students’ absences, go ahead and check now. In my opinion, parents don’t need to get cranky letters from the school about absences when they are trying to keep their child healthy and alive. Avoiding those letters could help protect the school/parent relationship. Education is very, very important, but health has to come first.
IEP Plan for Teleschooling
In the future, you may want to consider talking to your district about how teleschooling should be considered in the IEP and 504 plans for students who need them. Even if your school isn’t doing coronavirus teleschooling now, they might in the future. If you go ahead and start putting plans for teleschooling in your IEP now and include how that will impact the services they receive, you and your school will likely be better legally protected and your students will be more likely to get what they need. Win win.
Free Appropriate Public Education and Teleschooling
Just because an unusual event happens, doesn’t mean we are off the hook for ensuring that we meet the educational needs of all learners. We must plan now for COVID-19, but also any future disruptions that may come our way. All students have the right to a Free Appropriate Public Education, even when we are doing coronavirus teleschooling. This right doesn’t go away when disaster strikes. We might not be able to predict every disaster, but we can plan for the unexpected. One of my favorite quotes is, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” Let’s plan now so we don’t fail the kids who need us most.