- Teachers shortages abound, but special education is grappling with even higher vacancies
- Virtual learning options are growing in popularity as a way to offer high-quality instructional options to students with special needs
- See related article: 3 ways telepractice helps combat burnout in special education
According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), K-12 public schools faced significant teacher shortages in 2022, with nearly half reporting vacancies. Special education was one of the areas hit hardest, with 45 percent of schools needing to fill positions. Unfortunately, this trend is expected to continue, as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates 37,600 yearly openings for special education teachers over the next decade.
As the demand for special education teachers outpaces supply, school districts are seeking innovative solutions to bridge the gap and provide high-quality education to students with special needs. Teleservice solutions have gained widespread adoption in recent years, enabling schools to cast a wider net and tap into a pool of highly-qualified professionals beyond their immediate geographic area.
While many schools have become familiar with this approach, its effectiveness is not always straightforward and requires a more nuanced understanding of the factors that contribute to its varying success. In fact–and more broadly–according to a report by the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), 57 percent of respondents indicated that they have many edtech programs and products in their schools, but they are not always used effectively.
When it comes to virtual learning in special education, we have found that maximizing its potential requires a multifaceted approach. Here are three key strategies school districts should implement when considering what will influence and optimize the effectiveness of virtual learning in special education for schools, educators, and students:
Understand the diverse needs of your student population.
A significant percentage of students receiving special education services have specific learning disabilities (33 percent), speech or language impairments (19 percent), or other health impairments (15 percent), according to NCES. With the number of students requiring these services on the rise, schools are facing the challenge of managing increasingly diverse and complex caseloads.
To effectively address this challenge, school administrators require a reliable partner to assess and manage telepractitioners and virtual teachers who specialize in a wide range of teaching and intervention practices. These professionals must have the skills and expertise necessary to provide high-quality education and ensure individualized education plan (IEP) goals are being met in a measurable, attainable, and timely manner.
Before engaging with a teleprofessional, it’s imperative to have a clear understanding of the:
- Students who would benefit the most from teleservices
- Languages of the students needing services
- Educational settings where students will receive services
Implement the right technology, tools, and training.
According to a recent survey we conducted, technology was ranked essential to student success by 77 percent of virtual special education teachers, slightly above student attendance. Schools are often constrained by budgetary and resource limitations, which can create difficulties in identifying teleservice providers that offer technology that can be seamlessly integrated into their existing infrastructure without imposing significant financial burdens. When selecting a platform, prioritizing ease of use and familiarity for students and in-school facilitators is just as crucial as ensuring compliance with HIPPA, FERPA, and HITECH regulations.
While technology is a crucial component, it must be combined with a personalized learning experience that meets the unique needs of each student, as outlined in their IEP. This necessitates the utilization of tailored strategies and tools that are specifically designed to meet their specific requirements. Additionally, maintaining a comprehensive repository of regularly updated materials that school professionals can access and customize based on individual student needs can be an invaluable resource.
Remote teachers delivering special education services must also possess the necessary skills and expertise to manage the diverse range of abilities and needs of the students they serve. As such, it’s essential to carefully vet potential providers and consider factors such as their qualifications and training requirements. For instance, some remote providers value in-school experience and require at least two years of experience for remote positions.
To ensure positive outcomes for students with special needs, comprehensive training on virtual service delivery is imperative once practitioners are selected. Ongoing support for both clinical and technical aspects of teletherapy is also crucial. This type of support is particularly appealing to the increasing number of special educators who are transitioning from in-school to virtual service delivery.
Cultivate a collaborative approach to virtual special education.
Effective virtual learning for students with special needs requires a collaborative approach and proactive communication between teleprofessionals and school staff. A well-managed classroom environment, facilitated by a skilled professional, is essential for the student’s success. The facilitator plays a key role in bridging the communication gap between the student and the teleprofessional, providing tailored support based on the student’s age, IEP goals, and specific learning disabilities. Furthermore, effective collaboration and communication among parents and school staff can have a positive impact on attendance, assessments, and lesson planning. Collaboration also has the potential to reduce feelings of isolation and prevent burnout, as it can increase job satisfaction and confidence among teachers, ultimately leading to improved student outcomes. Working collaboratively, all stakeholders can foster a comprehensive and supportive learning environment that enhances student engagement and facilitates the achievement of their goals.
Students with disabilities should have access to the education, resources, and support they need to excel despite the challenges posed by the location and availability of highly-qualified special education teachers. In an ever-evolving digital landscape, it is critical to optimize virtual learning to achieve desired outcomes. By implementing the strategies outlined above, schools can assess and identify suitable teleservice providers, leading to positive outcomes for students with special needs and uncovering the full potential of virtual learning.
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