By: Matthew Korobkin, Senior Advisor, and Amy Howie, Senior Associate
As school districts are now several weeks into the COVID-19 emergency, state education agencies across the U.S. are announcing statewide closures of school buildings for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year. What appeared to be a potentially short-term situation is now becoming a much longer-term “new normal.”
Now more than ever during the COVID-19 emergency, parent engagement is critical. During this unprecedented time when children are receiving their education at home, the role of the parent is unique and essential. This is especially true for students with disabilities receiving their instruction, related services, and specially designed instruction, at home.
As subject matter experts who work closely with school districts and their administrators and teachers, Public Consulting Group, Inc. (PCG) consultants have taken note of five key areas where districts can enhance parent engagement during the COVID-19 emergency:
- Avoid the Out-of-Office Response: Be cautious of staff using the out-of-office e-mail feature while school is occurring remotely (the “new normal”). Although some things must come to a pause (i.e., in-person completion of certain parts of an evaluation), some things can still occur, such as instructional supports, some related services, virtual Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings, re-evaluations that do not require assessments, and possible waivers to postpone evaluations. In addition, it is essential for staff to maintain open lines of communication and be available to answer questions from parents.
- Conduct Weekly Virtual Coffee Hours: As parents adjust to this new way of learning for their children, they might be overwhelmed by the fact that they are now playing the role of teacher’s aide and provider of related service support. At the same time, they might be trying to take care of responsibilities for their job(s), or they might be dealing with the stress of recent unemployment. These factors might cause them to make fewer calls and/or send fewer emails to school staff than expected. Less frequent communication from parents doesn’t necessarily indicate lack of concern. It is best to make sure you are communicating frequently and giving parents as many opportunities as possible to reach you. Options may include invitations for parents to attend district special education parent advisory group meetings remotely, and weekly “virtual coffee hours” you are hosting when parents can log into a webinar and have a conversation with special education directors, teacher, and other parents.
- Facilitate Virtual Training for Parents: In addition to “virtual coffee hours,” school districts can provide virtual training for parents. Parents are often unfamiliar with the remote delivery of instruction to their child. During a typical in-person classroom day, if a child “earns” something using a token economy, the district may want to mimic this same protocol in the remote classroom. Following this example, the district’s behaviorist may play a significant role in providing training for parents on how to follow a token economy system with fidelity. In addition, if a child typically uses social stories in the in-person classroom when they need redirection, the same social stories may be transferred to the remote classroom. This is another opportunity for training.
- Provide Extra Communication for Parents and Students: It is essential for school districts to disseminate information through a coordinated effort, and it is essential for special education information to be included from the beginning, rather than as an add-on. This approach provides a united and cohesive message and avoids confusion with parents who have more than one child enrolled. When providing parents with information about at-home learning, be sure to outline expectations; it is best not to assume they are familiar with all terms, topics, or technology. Include helpful details such as definitions and links in one centralized location. For example, if you are having Zoom meetings daily, be sure to describe what “Zoom” is, and embed the link. In addition to ongoing communication with parents, connect with students directly. Communicate with students about the process of e-learning; answer questions; and address challenges before delivering instruction.
- Create a Districtwide Remote Special Education Plan: Create a districtwide plan that articulates, by grade-band, how district special education staff will provide special education and related services and the various modalities. Create instructional materials individualized for students with disabilities. Provide access to online learning platforms and tools that are provided. Also, collaborate with general education teachers, administrators, and related service providers; and collaborate with families. In addition, provide virtual learning sessions, if needed; provide weekly office hours for families and students; monitor progress; and adjust services as needed. Publicize this districtwide remote special education plan both internally and externally. Share it with families to ensure transparency and enhance trust.
As districts continue to navigate the “new normal,” it is critical to understand emerging local, state, and federal guidance. As each state might be taking a different path to solve challenges during the COVID-19 emergency, it is essential that the most current information is available and shared with parents. Continue monitoring your state education agency’s website, the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs website, and the advice from your district’s legal counsel.
About the Authors:
Matthew Korobkin, a Senior Advisor for Special Education Services based in Princeton, NJ, brings strategic planning expertise at the state and district levels in the areas of special education policy, compliance, operations, and instructional practice. Currently, Matthew focuses on supporting our national efforts in this field; performing special education program reviews as well as targeted reviews throughout the country; and working with other subject matter experts on thought leadership development.
Prior to joining PCG, Matthew was the Special Education Officer for Strategic Planning and Evaluation in the Office of the Secretary of Education at the Delaware Department of Education. As a direct report to the Secretary of Education, Matthew advised a legislated Special Education Oversight Group comprised of the Governor, Co-Chairs of the General Assembly’s Joint Finance Committee, and cabinet secretaries from the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Social Services, and the Department of Services for Children, Youth, and their Families.
Amy Howie is a Senior Associate at PCG and provides thought leadership and consulting services in the areas of special education and leadership to states and districts across the country. Amy serves as the advisor to Indiana’s Project SUCCESS, a resource center developed and managed by PCG in collaboration with the Indiana Department of Education to support higher academic achievement for students with disabilities. Amy also leads a variety of professional development engagements with district and state partners to build leadership capacity and improve student outcomes.
Prior to coming to PCG, Amy served as a building administrator for six years where she led efforts to improve instruction and increase achievement by developing and supporting special education programming; Response to Intervention initiatives; and Positive Behavioral Support programs. Amy was also a special education teacher for 10 years, including experience at elementary and secondary levels, and covering a range of disability areas and instructional settings.