In July, we published an article discussing how COVID-19 related school closures in the spring impacted vulnerable student groups, including students with special needs. The Department of Education granted schools, teachers, and specialists with broad flexibility in adhering to students’ IEPs. School leaders were left without the intricate details needed to address the unique complexities of special education.
This lack of detailed information left many students in special education behind:
- Teachers were unable to teach students in-person, forcing parents to find their own alternative learning solutions.
- Many families in low-income households struggled to find free and affordable tutoring options.
- Many special education students were unable to use common distance learning tools, such as Zoom, due to their disabilities and/or learning disorders.
We recently published articles describing how schools and districts can prepare parents for new health and learning best practices as schools reopen. These practices are just as important for students with special needs as they are for general education students because special education students are also a part of the general education classroom and school community. That said, it is also important to recognize that special education students may need much more support than typically developing students as they reenter school.
What steps should schools or districts take to properly support special education students reentering the classroom?
1. Form a COVID-19 Planning Committee.
Your district should form a COVID-19 Planning Committee dedicated to keeping the school’s health policies up-to-date with the most current best practices. This committee’s responsibilities may include:
- Continually seeking updates from the most recent health department and education department guidance related to serving general education and special education students.
- Evaluating data from the district’s data management system to identify gaps in services for special education students.
- Informing school leaders and teachers about how to incorporate targeted supports related to COVID-19 in students’ Individualized Education Programs (IEPs); for example, some students may need extra support to learn how to use distance learning tools.
- Create a dashboard to upload this information electronically. This will ensure that the team members will have access to real-time data to monitor progress to make mid-course adjustments. This will prevent students from falling through the cracks.
2. Consider additional safety procedures special education students may require.
Some of the students with special needs may be especially vulnerable to catching a severe case of COVID-19, and leaders may need to take extra precautions to keep them safe. For example, students with underlying health conditions and students who cannot wear a mask due to breathing issues may need more protection against the virus’s spread. Your school may want to implement extra safety procedures, such as:
- Providing face shields for teachers and students in inclusive classrooms and separate settings.
- Incorporating lesson plans for teachers to model the steps for wearing PPE and washing their hands properly.
- Sanitizing school materials more thoroughly and frequently in areas where special education students are located.
3. Consider extra educational and emotional support special education students may need.
Every student has unique needs, but students served in inclusive classrooms and separate settings are especially vulnerable to falling behind if they are not offered differentiated learning supports during this health pandemic. School leaders must develop procedures for IEP teams to follow as they decide which supports each student needs during the 2020-2021 school year.
Here are some questions IEP teams should answer for each student:
- Did this student experience a lapse in special education services and/or IEP compliance during Spring and Summer 2020? If so, how can we address the instructional loss or other issues?
- Has this student regressed in any areas of the curriculum as a result of school closures? How can we establish a new baseline for their learning targets? (School teams should use a combination of diagnostic, formative, and summative assessment tools to answer this question.)
- How should teachers track this student’s academic and behavioral progress in the 2020-2021 school year? (The National Center on Intensive Intervention offers resources to help monitor student progress. We also published an article recently about how to measure student progress through digital learning.)
- How can we be creative in meeting this student’s health and safety needs as schools reopen? (The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction offers several examples, including sensory accommodations and using visual supports to set social distancing boundaries.)
- How can we incorporate more social and emotional learning into our lesson plans to provide extra support as students adapt to a hybrid or online-only learning model?
- What outside supports, such as therapists or tutors, do we need to call upon to support this student?
- How can we train students and parents on how to use distance learning and assessment tools in case the school must close unexpectedly again, or if the student needs to quarantine? How can we offer this training as soon as possible, so everyone is adequately prepared?
- How else can we equip parents to support their student’s learning at home? (The National Center on Intensive Intervention offers a guide for working with parents.)
4. Consider professional development needs for school leaders and special education teachers.
School leaders are working under unprecedented conditions as they try to reopen schools during a health pandemic. Many school leaders and teachers are unsure of how to properly support students with special needs—especially those who need intensive interventions. School and district leaders must provide high-quality, ongoing professional development for school leaders and teachers, so they are prepared to support all student groups under these new conditions.
At the Center for Student Achievement, we are ready to support your district or school with customized professional development solutions. We work with schools and districts around the country to help provide equitable education solutions for all students. Schedule a free call with us today to discuss your questions about how to help your students achieve success this year.