This story is part two of a series on special education and the pandemic. For part one, click here.
Counselors, physical therapists, reading specialists and speech pathologists who support students with special needs have been getting creative as they try to do their jobs remotely. But technology has its limits.
Alicia Seaver, an occupational therapist at Roxbury’s Orchard Garden’s K-8 School, when asked whether occupational therapists like herself can do their jobs through remote learning answered, “yes” and “no.”
“In some ways I think that, yes, we’re fulfilling parts of our role, but in other ways I feel as though we’re removed from working directly on some of the skills that we typically would,” she said in a recent interview with WGBH News.
Normally, Seaver helps students with the skills they need to navigate a classroom. They practice writing, picking up and carrying supplies for tasks, and moving around or sitting still when it’s time for them to do that. The practice builds students’ muscle coordination and trains to them process information their senses take in, skills they will need later to move through life. Touch, Seaver said, is a key piece of that work.
“Sometimes we’re doing work on top of a therapy ball working on balance, working on core strength. So you’re physically handling and guiding the student in that way,” she said. “Then for other things, like fine motor skills, you might by physically repositioning the fingers of a child, positioning a pencil or tongs in their hand for them.”
To get around that lack of in-person coaching, Seaver and other special education service professionals are trying new approaches – convening virtual classrooms and creating specialized instructional videos for students and parents to access at their convenience. Many specialists must rely on parents to fill the gaps by becoming hands-on instructors.
James Baron, a special education attorney in private practice, pointed out that relying on parents could make learning support at-home difficult.
“If you think about the expertise that is needed to teach children and to provide very unique and specific services based on the type of disability that a child has, that often takes years of training and practice,” he said. “It’s not something that most parents are equipped to do.”
With parents stressed from the pandemic, special education instruction at home can overwhelm them or other caregivers.
“They are not only doing their work, assuming they still are employed, but also trying to help their children stay online and do any homework that might be assigned, and then they have to possibly do that across several children in the household,” Baron said. “And that’s difficult.”
Even though school districts are limited in what they can provide, parents are struggling with what they should accept and what they should demand from pandemic learning.
Both the federal and state governments have made clear teaching and learning should still be happening. That means students with disabilities are entitled to the services outlined in their individual education plans, or IEPs.
Baron says there is a legal argument to be made about how meaningfully those IEPs are implemented during the pandemic, but, both sides have to be reasonable, and work together and “figure out how can we provide the services that are required under the child’s IEP,” or else children will suffer.
Advocates though, say in some cases, merely accessing remote support materials is a challenge.
“Families with limited English proficiency, limited access to technology, and limited tech literacy are not accessing remote education fully, if at all. This is further exacerbated by food insecurity, health concerns related to COVID-19, and housing instability,” said Katherine Tarpley, an attorney with the Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts. “Many children are going without all those critical hands-on services and supports, either because their schools district isn’t offering it or because they can’t access what is being offered.”
Tarpley said she and her colleagues are most concerned about regression among the most vulnerable student groups, and how school districts will address the issue of compensatory education for special education students when schools reopen. School districts are pushing their staff to document family engagement in preparation to address students’ potential loss of skills.
“State guidelines recommend that schools assess how the closure affected each special education student and make an individualized determination about any compensatory services they may need,” said Tarpley. “We are concerned that school districts may use a family’s lack of engagement to justify no increase or change in services.”
Teachers like Emma Fialka-Feldman are also concerned about how school districts will address special education whenever school reconvenes.
“My fear is that schools and districts are going to throw special ed students into sub-separate classrooms because it will be quote easier to meet compliance and to backlog the special ed hours that students didn’t receive during the pandemic.”
For now, special education stakeholders acknowledge there’s no virtual service that can replicate the focused time and attention students were getting in school. Some are trying to get school districts to just do the best they can to reduce the likelihood of a need for compensatory services later.
A spokesperson from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said the agency has not issued specific guidance on learning gaps, but has consistently stated that schools should check in with vulnerable students “frequently.”
“Our problem resolution system remains open for when families believe districts are not following requirements,” said Jacqueline Reis adding that the agency anticipates addressing questions around compensatory services in the future.
Additionally, she said, school districts can apply for federal CARES Act funding through DESE and use the funds in a variety of ways, “including to assess and address learning gaps that all students might have as a result of the school closure.”
Alicia Seaver hopes special education professionals can tap their talents to creatively help kids recover what they may have lost.
“It’s going to be a huge challenge, but also kind of an exciting time to figure out how do we best evaluate where students are.”