The pandemic brought special education to the forefront of the dialogue about education, with the media focus mainly directed at sharing stories of students separated from the in-school supports that they had come to rely upon, and parents struggling to plug the gaps.

Virtual schools can serve students with special needs—and do it well

Understanding the difference between “therapy delivered over videoconferencing” versus a teletherapy platform is essential for success

This trend was most prominent in states such as Florida and Pennsylvania, which had been building out large in-state virtual schools for a decade or more prior to the pandemic: virtual schools grew most in states that already had established virtual school enrollment in place. Not surprisingly, this affirms that parents recognize and credit the difference between an established program designed from the beginning to serve students virtually versus the quickly spun-up virtual programs created by many public districts in response to COVID-related school closures.

Many of the media stories about underserved parents and students with special needs were centered on what was experienced in new virtual offerings created by public districts in response to school closures. There are three prevailing practices among high-performing virtual schools that serve students with special needs well:

1. Parent Engagement

We’ve seen time and time again that kids do better in school overall when their parents are involved, and this is particularly true for virtual schools. A recent study underscores the importance of a distance special education and support model that is centered on parents as the primary, home-based support. The findings include 90 percent of students reporting that they enjoyed the services in this model, and 92 percent of parent respondents calling the services very helpful. A parent’s relationship with the provider supports goal setting, positive sessions, and progress outside of them.

Tami Radzai, CCC-SLP, who has served students online in North Carolina, Washington, and California, explains:

“Parents and caregivers play a critical role in teletherapy sessions,” she says. “When parents are engaged, that’s when the true magic happens; they hear the strategies we’re using, what prompts we’re using, and what language we’re modeling—then they can use that in everyday interactions with their child to make important gains.”

2. Online Service Expertise

A key to successful virtual delivery is using therapists with specific training and experience in remote therapy services. Delivering an effective online therapy experience requires not only that the therapist to be fully licensed in the field, but also that they are adept in translating their skills from an in-person to a virtual environment. Connecting through a virtual modality requires differentiated strategies for engaging and motivating students, and it’s a unique form of expertise.

“We’ve been using virtual therapy services for some time now and having teletherapists who are experienced in the online delivery of therapy is the key to success. They are experts in making our students’ online sessions joyful and engaging,” said Jill Daniels, director of special education for the Idaho Home Learning Academy in the Oneida School District.

3. The Right Technology

Technology can be a really powerful tool in special education. It can help simplify providers’ workflow and help them to serve more students. It can help reinforce and personalize skill development for each child. And it can help schools shift quickly to a remote or hybrid model and fill critical gaps in their in-person delivery mode. But understanding the difference between “therapy delivered over videoconferencing” versus a teletherapy platform is essential in success for online special education services. The right technology has to be built from the ground up for providers to serve students.

Kimbra Kern, MA, CCC-SLP, who practices online in Missouri, recommends that “school districts have the right online therapy platform.”

Engaging activities, interactive features, therapist resources and guides, and the ability to control student views and actions all serve to keep a therapy session on track and driving outcomes. There is an important place for virtual schools in modern special education. With the right resources and expertise in place there is opportunity to truly personalize the student experience to ensure it is the best it can be for each child.

Kate Eberle Walker

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