The challenges of continuing education while schools are closed due to the coronavirus are sizable, but particularly so for specialized services, such as speech/language, occupational and physical therapy and counseling. Critical individualized education plans (IEPs) that form the framework for delivery are often formalized at the county or public school district levels and implemented by teams of highly trained specialists with expertise, curricula and tools that parents cannot replicate.
While school districts are required to offer continuation of specialized services during the closure, there is little guidance on what they are specifically required to do. As a result, districts are determining for themselves the extent to which they will implement telelearning as opposed to providing worksheets and other materials for parents and students to complete on their own. Meanwhile, children who require specialized services are at a greater risk of falling behind their peers, both functionally and academically.
Teach Coalition is advocating for districts to use telelearning, in many cases, in order to help students progress toward their goals. In late-March, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed a bill that requires school districts to continue offering specialized services during the school closure, which will now continue for the rest of the school year. In New Jersey, where counties and districts were not permitted to offer speech and language services remotely due to a legal matter, we worked with member schools, districts, families and the state’s department of education to have these restrictions lifted.
We had the chance to catch up with Jacqueline Lindenfeld, the Director of Support Services at Paramus’s Yeshivat Noam, to discuss the challenges presented by the pandemic as they relate to specialized services and impact of the state’s lifting of restrictions on remote learning for students with IEPs.
What are your main concerns in terms of students maintaining progress during this time?
In general, specialized services themselves are helpful in that they target individual student goals. I am concerned about the learning gaps that will exist when kids do come back to physical school. Students who receive related services have difficulty learning to begin with, so this will widen the gap. Any continuation of learning that exists will be helpful. Having teletherapy helps students stay on track even more so.
What was it like for you in transitioning your school’s students from in-school learning to distance services?
I work with Bergen County Special Services. They always try to get us what our students need, and they were doing everything they could other than offering teletherapy because of the legal issue. In the middle school, the speech services provider looked at each student’s growth and developed targeted homework assignments. The same thing was happening with occupational therapy. While I was nervous about not having teletherapy, from Day 1 – even before teletherapy was approved – the county was preparing and holding meetings about it. They were prepping as if teletherapy was going to happen, even though they told us at one point that they would not be able to provide it.
What benefits have you observed regarding teletherapy for children with IEPs or service plans (SPs)?
For students who do well with smaller groups, remote learning has really shown the potential to provide almost a real classroom experience. Students can engage, ask questions and participate in a lot of game playing and this is all really positive. I have also seen some real creativity in terms of how (instructors) are able to use breakout rooms. There are some great apps that have ever been used before. It is amazing to see what teachers have come up with in such a short period of time. It is also easier to check if students are reaching goals because we can gather measurable data in the moment rather than homework.