As schools, parents, and students across the country prepare for school re-entry, many are celebrating a return to the classroom. There is no shortage of studies and expert opinions stating that the majority of students learn better in-person. But, for the many students who are looking forward with hope to a September where class happens in a room rather than through a screen, there are also a significant number of students who thrived in online instruction and are nervous about losing the confidence they found in a new modality of learning.
Special education teams know this because they have always been focused on ensuring that schools find the best ways to serve and support all students, not just those in the majority or who fit the norm. For many of the students who need special accommodations, introducing technology into learning has been nothing short of revolutionary.
Many students have thrived
As the months of the pandemic progressed, school leaders started to notice that, despite the drawbacks of remote learning, there was a subset of students for whom the modality allowed them to thrive in ways they hadn’t in an in-person school setting. “Remote learning has been a disaster for many students. But some kids have thrived,” declared one article, positing that “special education students, in particular, could benefit from schools taking lessons from distance learning back into the classroom.”
Students with anxiety have been particularly called out as benefitting from remote instruction, which reduces the social variables and allows them to focus exclusively on the learning. Similarly, some students with autism have discovered benefits from online learning this year. Andrea Parrish, director of development and learning systems at the IDEALS Institute, posited that remote learning simplified the learning process for some students with autism. “They can just focus on the content or just focus on the instructions at hand,” she said. “And so they don’t have to navigate all of those other social experiences while they’re learning.”
There is a false dichotomy between “onsite” and “onscreen;” it is possible to incorporate screens into the learning process in a way that is additive rather than a substitute. A return to the school building doesn’t have to mean a return to “low-tech” teaching and learning, and in many cases it shouldn’t. Students often like using technology and feel comfortable with it. And it has great power to personalize their learning and prepare them for life in our digital age. It’s important for school teams, especially in special education, to reflect on what worked well through technology, and how to bring that into the classroom as we return.
Chatham County Schools in North Carolina used teletherapy with a significant portion of its students in its special education program during the pandemic and has seen encouraging results. “Some students flourished, where they had previously been working more slowly during in-person services,” according to Debbie Daugherty MA-SLP-CCC, lead Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP).
One of her students is on the autism spectrum and has a tough time focusing. “He was always very resistant to working together in class,” she said. “When we started working this year through our teletherapy platform, he was able to engage. He likes being on the computer, so talking to me through the computer and using headphones at home really broke down those hurdles.”
Now, even when they’re in the classroom together, she still has him log on to the platform so they can work through the experience and share a computer screen. “His cooperation has carried over to the classroom now that we are doing hybrid services.”
Jennifer Svaty, MS, CCC-SLP at Central Kansas Cooperative in Education, shares another example. “I have one student who has some extreme anxiety and significant issues with social communication skills. And so in person was very challenging for him; but as he has been a remote learner and we have used teletherapy, he has been able to open up because it took away the pressure of that in-person social communication piece. His parents have been thrilled with the ability for him to get therapy at home where he feels safe and comfortable.”
With increasing concern about the Delta variant and 66 percent of top districts planning virtual academies, there will still likely be choices for many of these families to remain in online learning through their public district, or they may choose to enroll in a virtual academy. But it would be a lost opportunity to overlook hybrid ways to incorporate technology into the classroom setting to give special education students the opportunity to integrate into the classroom setting while also benefiting from technology where it helps them manage anxiety and have a more positive and productive learning experience.
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