COVID-19 School Closures and Special Education: Shifting Instructional Practices to a Digital Environment

With COVID-19 moving much of traditional K-12 instruction online, educators across the United States are quickly building their capacity to provide equitable services in a new way. They are researching distance learning, setting-up class websites, reaching out to their students and parents, and becoming familiar with the available free digital tools to help them connect with their students. Television stations in many communities are partnering with school districts to conduct media campaigns to raise community awareness, set expectations, and inform students and their parents on what they need to do to get started with distance learning. The sudden shift presents unprecedented challenges for all teachers, especially for those serving students with disabilities.  

Special educators have shared with us that this transition to distance learning has presented the hardest challenge they have ever faced. Team efforts are strong though, and special educators are rising to the challenge. They are committed to intentionally reaching out to continue to build relationships and maintain connections with students, to plan and deliver content in multiple ways so all students can access learning, and to manage and monitor student progress. They are using the resources that they have available at their fingertips to implement instructional practices in a digital environment and are asking themselves essential questions about teaching in this new way. What opportunities are there to individualize, supplement, and extend student learning? How will my students learn best? What background knowledge will they need? What assistive technology and accessibility features are available? How, and by whom, will related services be delivered?

From our recent conversations with special educators who have already started to provide instruction virtually, we have identified several useful tips to help you prepare, engage, and reflect on your new teaching approach. Our hope is that others can learn from the experiences of these early adopters.

10 Tips to Help Special Education Teachers Make the Shift to a Digital Environment

  1. Review Digital Learning and Instructional Continuity Plans. In light of school closures, many school districts have developed plans to prepare for remote digital learning and have rolled-out detailed instructional continuity plans like the ones recently rolled-out by Miami Dade County Public Schools and the School District of Palm Beach County. If your local area school district does not have a plan in place, look for and adapt plans developed by other school districts that are like yours.  
  1. Identify Available Resources. Inventory all of the immediately-available resources that may be at your disposal to help you quickly pivot to using distance learning tools, including:
  1. Become Familiar with Available Resources, and Plan for Utilization. Use the resources you have available and are familiar with first; then develop a plan to learn and utilize the other available resources to enhance the distance learning experience for all.
  1. Set Up a Personal Workspace. Create a workspace that has a good internet connection, is quiet, free of distraction, well organized and has all of the digital resources readily available to facilitate your scheduled distance learning sessions.
  1. Practice Virtual Classroom Facilitation Skills. A successful virtual classroom learning experience requires scheduling and building time to practice each new learning session implemented in a digital teaching and learning environment. By scheduling practice time prior to each new session, you will build your skills with introducing the learning routines, and ease students’ transitions between the varied digital tools and activities they are expected to engage in.
  1. Review Individual Student Needs. Identify how you can best meet the unique needs of your students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). There is no defined or correct delivery method that will equitably meet the needs of all students. As stated in the Office for Civil Rights/Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation OCR/OSERS Supplemental Fact Sheet, the provision of a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) may include, as appropriate, special education and related services provided through distance instruction that is provided virtually, online, or telephonically. Many disability related modifications may be effectively provided online, such as extensions of time for assignments, videos with captioning or embedded sign language interpreting, accessible reading materials, and speech/language services through video conferencing. Be creative in how you transform the brick-and-mortar approach into a virtual one and how you employ varied delivery options in this context. What can you do to present, accommodate or modify the information for the student in a way that is different from what other students receive?
  1. Plan for Sessions. Identify the digital resources that you will use and allow for dynamic sessions that will engage learners. Bookmark available quick links to standards, accommodations or modifications or other useful information. Add other resources that support activities (files, websites, multimedia, etc.) that will allow you to present/email/print these directly from devices. Add a variety of activity ideas to units to help address the diverse needs of the learners.
  2. Communicate and Implement Attendance Procedures. Clearly communicate how students will log in to their devices and portal(s), enter and access instruction taking place in a digital environment, and how attendance will be recorded and monitored.
  1. Communicate Course/Instructional Requirements, and Monitor Student Progress. Provide information on required assignments, tests and quizzes, grading standards and how student engagement and usage will be monitored using the required tools in a digital environment. Use available communication tools to share information and engage with parents during designated office hours.
  1. Engage in Post-Session Reflections. Make time to debrief and reflect on key questions that will help make the next session better. Was equitable access provided by enabling accessibility features and providing reasonable accommodations to students who need them during the distance learning sessions? What were the student’s learning strengths and challenges observed during instructional engagement? Which accessibility features and/or accommodations were most frequently used by you or the students during instruction and assessments? Are adjustments needed?

How PCG Can Help

COVID-19 is creating significant challenges for school districts. PCG is always looking for ways to support districts and students.

Special Education Research, Action Planning and Facilitation. Subject matter experts and consultants can research best practices, inventory resources, guide action planning, and facilitate the development of digital learning instructional continuity plans to help you address emergency situations that result in interrupted education for students with disabilities.

Teach Every Child Connector (TECC). Provides access to relevant instructional data housed in EDPlan™ directly in your learning management system and provides useful reports to mine your data to effectively support personalized instruction in a digital environment.

Virtual Staffing Solutions. Provides trained professionals to augment staffing needs and work directly to support your efforts to provide continuity of instruction and services during this emergency period using your available digital learning solutions or by providing PCG’s EDPlan™ suite of tools.

About the Author

Will Gordillo, a Senior Associate, provides thought leadership and consulting services in the areas of special education and behavioral threat assessment policies, practices and solutions to support project implementations nationally and in Florida. Prior to joining PCG, Mr. Gordillo taught students receiving special education services and English language learners in K–12 settings. These experiences allowed him to develop extensive expertise in the provision of programs and services for students with specialization in emotional behavioral disabilities, autism spectrum disorders and other learning differences. He further honed his skills and experiences working as a school site assistant principal and principal, and headed exceptional student education, psychological services, behavioral, mental health and crisis supports in two urban school districts. He is currently supporting the implementation of behavioral threat assessment and suicide risk assessment solutions in an effort to address the behavioral mental health and wellness of students.

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