Schools and educators have higher levels of comfort with virtual learning solutions than ever before. With a return to the “new normal,” now is the time to revisit temporary guidelines in favor of long-term solutions to ongoing challenges.
One specific challenge is the growing shortage of speech-language pathologists serving school special education programs. The majority of school-based speech therapists report unfilled clinical job openings in their districts, and tens of thousands of additional therapists will be needed to fill the growing need over the next decade.
To combat staff shortages, states like Arizona and Oregon have enabled remote, online supervision of on-site speech-language pathology assistants (“SLPAs”), something long supported by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.
Supervision of SLPAs via telepractice benefits districts, therapists, and students. Compared with advanced-degree SLP professionals, SLPAs are more affordable to hire and are a more racially diverse workforce. SLPAs working in schools can take on administrative tasks from existing on-site therapists so they can focus on delivering high-quality therapy. Data shows that when supported by assistants, therapists have more time to focus on complex caseloads, and experience reductions in their workloads and in clerical duties – one of their biggest challenges.
“Remote supervision has allowed us to more than double our in-person speech services compared to previous years when assistants were supervised on site,“ said Matt Kaste, Director of Exceptional Student Services in Yuma Elementary School District One. “This increased coverage means we can provide in-person services for some of our students who need it the most.”
When supervising therapists are offered a more flexible schedule and are able to work from home, they remain in the profession longer. Cheryl Glus, an SLP and assistant technology professional, gave her perspective. “There are several advantages for the supervising clinician. Because I don’t have to commute, I can be more present for the assistant, more easily accommodate schedule changes while still completing our required hours, and I can use my time more productively. I can also oversee assistants all over the country, seeing therapy through a different set of eyes and continuing my own education.”
Supervision via telepractice may also offer longer-term benefits to clinicians and staff in schools. Glus added: “Remote supervision increases the assistant’s confidence and independence. They aren’t physically in a room with their supervisor, looking to them for full support. This, in turn, helps them better prepare to enter the workforce.”
In states such as California, waivers enabling telesupervision have expired. As lawmakers work to create more permanent solutions, thousands of children go without their required speech services. Unless schools are able to use remote therapists to conduct the required supervision hours remotely, they cannot turn to assistants as a solution to address their students’ needs.
We’ve seen virtual solutions make headway in addressing special education staffing shortages that have persisted for years. Instead of reverting to old ways, now is the time for every state to consider what might be possible with permanent legislation.
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