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Meeting the challenge of providing special ed. remotely

  • Despite challenges posed by remote learning, teachers are finding new ways to connect with students on Individualized Educational Programs (IEPs). Staff Illustration/Andy Castillo

Published: 5/15/2020 3:27:11 PM
Modified: 5/15/2020 3:26:58 PM

With school buildings closed and remote learning in place for the rest of the school year, here is a look at how Franklin County school districts are handling the challenge of providing services to students with special needs.

Frontier and Union 38 regional school districts

School officials have said that despite challenges posed by remote learning, teachers have found ways to connect remotely with students on Individualized Educational Programs (IEPs).

“It’s trickier,” said Superintendent Darius Modestow during a Sunderland Selectboard meeting. “There’s been a lot of correspondence and communication with the families depending on the level of special needs and the level of service that they need. Teachers are working with students … one-to-one on video and working with parents one-to-one, trying to help provide lessons and instruction.”

He noted IEP meetings have resumed.

Modestow said he thinks the district is doing an “above average” job in keeping students in contact and not letting them “fall off the radar,” but he also acknowledged that not all services can be delivered to students in a remote manner.

“There are some services that can’t be delivered the same way, and we’re going to be in a position to make up services when this is through,” he said. “We’re prepared for that, and we’re going to have to budget for that.”

Pioneer Valley Regional School District

According to Chris Maguire, administrator of special education for the Pioneer Valley Regional School District, every student who has an IEP has been given a remote learning plan to meet their specific needs.

Students are still getting direct instruction via video chat or telephone for most of their lessons, including math and reading. Students also work alongside instructors to improve their reading comprehension skills, with a speech pathologist sometimes listening in to assist.

“You just can’t replicate being face-to-face,” Maguire noted.

For some students, Maguire said, online learning can be a challenge. As an alternative to online assignments, students have been given packets with lesson plans. Maguire said it can also be challenging to meet all the needs of students remotely, especially for students with social development needs.

“Is (remote learning) working for everybody? No, I wouldn’t be being honest if I said it was,” Maguire said. “We’re figuring out what’s best for each student.”

Instructional assistants are making time to check in with students and help guide them through any work they may be struggling with, Maguire said. Teachers are also offering office hours for parents or students to reach out with questions or concerns.

Ralph C. Mahar Regional School

Rebecca Phillips, director of special services, said lessons and activities (including counseling and related services) are being provided on a virtual platform and over the phone, and they are mailed or delivered in hard copy form when necessary. She said staff members are providing direct instruction to students both individually and in small groups.

“I am very proud of the work that we are doing with our students,” she said.

The practices taken on by the Special Education Department include Google Hangout lessons, email and phone check-ins, newsletters and resource guides for families; Google Classroom lessons; consultation with families, teachers and related service providers; specialized weekly team meetings; and spreadsheets for tracking task completion and participation between service providers.

“As a district, we have recognized the critical importance of connecting with our students and families, and this is more important now than ever before,” Phillips said. “Teachers are eager to return to school and work directly with their students.”

Athol-Royalston Regional School District

When asked how her staff is meeting the educational and social/emotional needs of the roughly 400 special needs students during the ongoing school closure, Director of Pupil Services Kathryn Clark doesn’t miss a beat: “With care and compassion,” she said.

“Each family has its own individual needs and challenges, and (staff members are) trying to work with families to make sure the kids are getting what they need and can make some progress during all of this,” she continued.

Clark said steps were taken to protect the identities of special needs students with the advent of online learning.

“The way (a lesson) is set up on the website, it’s not identified as special needs because we don’t want to call anybody out,” Clark said. “It’s just identified as supplemental material and it’s there for everybody. The teaches then follow up with the families and the kids during the week to find out what help they might need. It’s all done in a private one-to-one conversation in order to protect privacy.”

Steps are also being taken to provide services for students who may require physical, speech or occupational therapy.

“The staff are really missing their kids,” she concluded. “Part of the reason you want to be a special ed. teacher is because you really get more one-to-one time with kids and, obviously, we’re not getting that now.”

Gill-Montague Regional School District

While most special educational needs are covered by the state Department of Education’s recent guidance on remote learning, Gill-Montague still has a number of cases that have to be handled uniquely and creatively, said the district’s Student Services Director Dianne Ellis.

“Public education is incredibly challenging right now for everyone,” Ellis said. “It’s difficult for families, for students, for teachers; and at the bottom of the food chain is the administrators, who are trying to figure this out.”

Teachers, in their remote learning programs, have also offered one-on-one office hours to give students extra academic support as needed. Many students with learning disabilities can be successfully accommodated that way, Ellis said.

But some present more complicated challenges — for example, Ellis said, students with behavioral health issues, or students who are non-verbal due to intellectual conditions. In these cases the district has connected families with school psychologists and counselors; but still, Ellis said, the students are not getting as much direct support as they typically do. Students with intensive learning needs will likely need extra remedial instruction when they return to school, she said.

Equity in access to technological resources has also been a challenge. The district has tried to ensure that all families can access its remote learning systems, Ellis said. Often this has come down to loaning families computers, or even coordinating internet access. One teacher has been designated as a “technology coach” to work with parents who have trouble with computers, Ellis said.

“We don’t want to further disadvantage some of our most vulnerable populations,” she said.

Franklin County Technical School

Franklin Tech has a unique challenge in recreating its services remotely because its student body spans the whole county. Where another school may have a single technological-logistical challenge that, by virtue of its geographical region, applies to all of its students, Franklin Tech has all of those schools’ problems, spread across many smaller groups of students, explained Pupil Services Coordinator Nate May.

“It’s been challenging, just like this whole situation with COVID-19 has been challenging not just for schools, but for families and other institutions,” May said. “It has not been easy, but it’s something we’re doing. We’re achieving and overcoming.”

Most special education needs are being handled on a case-by-case basis, May said. All specialized learning plans, which were designed to work in a classroom setting, now have to be largely redesigned to work by remote means.

“That’s probably the biggest challenge,” he said. “The environment it was designed for is not the environment that people are trying to provide services in now.”

While some students’ programs have been adapted to work via computer, some students have learning disabilities that make it especially hard to learn online, May said. In those cases, teachers have communicated by phone, by writing letters or even by driving to students’ houses for short, socially distant visits.

Without the structure of students and teachers being in the same building for eight hours a day, May said teachers are going to unusual lengths to remain accessible to students — often giving out personal phone numbers, and responding to email at odd hours to fit with families’ schedules.

“The level that our teachers have allowed themselves to be available to their students has increased,” he said. “We’ve kind of opened up.”

Greenfield School Department

Superintendent Jordana Harper said the Greenfield School Department continues to provide special education services to students who need them, but online or over the phone. The schools have a Remote Learning Plan that guides teachers and staff on what to do with students with special needs, and Harper said staff members have worked diligently to transition to providing IEP services via “an unprecedented remote delivery model.”

The Greenfield School Department’s special education director met with senior associate commissioner and special education director for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Russell Johnson to clarify the revised responsibility of school districts in providing special education services remotely during the pandemic.

Greenfield schools are providing accommodations and making modifications online to teach special education students, which include extensions of time for assignments, videos with accurate captioning or embedded sign language interpreting, accessible reading materials and many speech or language services through video conferencing. For instance, if a teacher who has a blind student is working from home, the teacher could read the lesson aloud over the phone or provide the student with an audio recording of a reading of the lesson.

Harper said special education teachers and related service providers are providing all services on students’ IEPs to the greatest extent possible, given the constraints related to the health emergency. Those teachers and service providers talk with parents about how services can best be provided and arrangements are made to meet those needs. If at any time, a parent wants services that he or she had originally declined, but the student is entitled to, those services begin immediately.

Mohawk Trail and Hawlemont school districts

The interim superintendent of Mohawk Trail and Hawlemont regional school districts said remote learning has presented a unique set of challenges for students and their families.

“There are so many unique and singular experiences that people are dealing with. … There are so many stand-alones for families that they have to overcome,” said Interim Superintendent Pat Bell. “I can’t say that there’s a quick solution to anything because there’s just so many circumstances.” She said feedback from surveys to families and staff highlights a “multitude of barriers to trying to deliver a successful educational experience of any description to our students.”

Bell said the district is updating its remote learning plan for both districts with directives from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education as well as feedback from the surveys.

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