Special education leaders’ top priorities in the first weeks of the COVID-19 crisis

Expert Insight

Special education leaders’ top priorities in the first weeks of the COVID-19 crisis

Across the weeks of March 23 and 30, EAB convened several virtual roundtables focused on special education service continuity with K-12 district superintendents, assistant superintendents, special education directors, and other education leaders. These virtual roundtables serve to provide a forum for sharing perspectives and reality-checking responses to the unfolding pandemic. Here are takeaways from special education leaders’ priorities in COVID-19 and how they’ve approached challenges so far.

Districts are proceeding with distance learning for general population despite abiding concerns about equal access for special needs students

The Department of Education’s (DOE) March 19 guidance on service delivery expectations alleviated some IDEA compliance concerns, signaling that districts have latitude in interpreting how to provide FAPE “to the greatest extent possible”, and that future guidance about compensatory resources will come after the full impact of school closings is reckoned. Additionally, the DOE guidance encouraged experimentation with online instruction and virtual service delivery.

The handful of districts (notably The School District of Philadelphia) that were previously slow-walking transitions to online instruction due to concerns about equal access for special needs students are now joining the majority of districts who were already instructing specialists to conduct basic services online. As regulatory guidance and information about virtual service options becomes more reliable, districts will focus on developing more specific plans for equity and compliance.

Special education leaders’ immediate focus: Relationships over new learning for the moment

Special education leaders believe that in the first weeks of distance learning, student contact with teachers and specialists is paramount, with virtual communications routines taking precedence over new learning. Most are using relatively straightforward videoconferencing tools such as Zoom and Google Meet to hold one-on-one or small group check-ins with students several times weekly, sometimes daily. Some districts are embedding specialists as co-teachers in online classes to maximize their exposure to all students, but especially special needs groups.

Elevating parental communications in the intermediate term: Seeking a reassuring tone while asking for greater instructional support engagement

“Parents are so worried about their student falling behind—but who are they going to fall behind? The entire country is at a standstill. That’s the message we need to get out.”

Superintendent, MI

Special education leaders described a complex balancing act in communicating with families. At first, it can simply be a matter of connecting with English-language learner or transient families. Then comes striking the balance in tone between projecting the district’s confidence and commitment to Special Education, while acknowledging parents’ legitimate concerns, and conceding the uncertainty in service provision capability as the pandemic plays out. A higher-order message many want (where EAB will seek to crowdsource best-in-class reusable examples for our partners) is to help parents understand the increased support they’ll need to provide in the coming weeks and months, ideally in the form of “playbooks” for parents to follow to support their child’s learning needs in a prolonged virtual setting.

The task for April and May: Fast-cycle evaluation of technology-enabled special needs services; Some are already adapting additional services for online delivery

Special education leaders predict the COVID-19 moment will catalyze evaluation of technology-enabled services not widely adopted in traditionally face-to-face disciplines, especially if DOE guidance and federal relief funds materially encourage teleservice innovation. Among the technology-enabled practices districts are scaling up and eager to evaluate:

  • IEP documentation workflow automation, linking video, notes and ERP systems
  • IEP initial evaluation request solutions
  • Open-source speech therapy and reading resources
  • Telecounseling solutions
  • Asynchronous and synchronous Physical and Occupational Therapy solutions
  • Autism spectrum services, which represents the greatest unknown area for districts at this time.

To maximize agility, several districts are pulling forward the task of obtaining parental consent forms, so that technology-enabled solutions can be rapidly scaled if the decision to pilot them is taken.

Longer-term, special education leaders are thinking ahead to next school year: How can we make up for lost time?

EAB expected many special education leaders to be overwhelmed by immediate concerns but was somewhat surprised to hear that districts are thinking about how to best play catch-up next year.

As a Massachusetts superintendent observed, if we lose 60 instructional days in 2020, in 2021 we’ll have to fit 240 days’ worth of instruction into a 180-day school year.

To avoid such a crunch, special education directors seek expedited updates to integrated data management platforms, allowing for assessment and tracking of special needs student achievement so that compensatory education needs can be accurately estimated, and requests for supplemental specialist resources quantified. Some districts also believed that if social distancing is lifted on the early side of public health estimates, districts may deploy concerted summer efforts in special needs education to “catch up” on distance learning gaps accrued in April and May. 

EAB plans to crowdsource available special education resources online and profile virtual services

Going forward, we plan to aggregate and evaluate resources for delivering Special Education services online and profile the best service delivery methods for students with varying disabilities. Under current circumstances, we expect many districts to consider telecounseling, teletherapy, and other alternative means of service provision to ensure service delivery. No district we spoke with had taken the plunge yet, but many wanted to know what the most user-friendly and engaging educational technologies available are for delivering counseling services, occupational therapy, speech therapy, and physical therapy to learners of different ages.

Sign up for EAB’s upcoming special education events

Guided by districts’ near- and longer-term challenges, EAB will be producing implementation tools and convening executive education events in the coming weeks. Please keep reading our COVID-19 resource center for updates, or contact your Relationship Manager if you want to pre-register for the following:

We can provide written feedback or schedule a live conference call to discuss how your plan compares to best-in-class national examples

EAB will host hour-long webconferences with early adopters of online counseling, therapy and speech services, helping you understand what the services can and can’t do, and the benefits, costs, and risks of implementation

We are creating a virtual platform for specialists to share insights on tech tools, open-source resources, and “life hacks” for the COVID-19 moment

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