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An educator and former supe details the importance of teletherapy and embracing tech-based solutions in schools to meet students' needs.

Innovative solutions to meet diverse student needs


An educator and former superintendent details the importance of teletherapy and embracing tech-based solutions in schools

Key points:

The demand for special education services is increasing, particularly in the wake of the pandemic. The staff who provide those services, however, are becoming fewer and farther between. In 2023, 65 percent of schools across the nation reported difficulty in hiring special educators. Now, schools are exploring new approaches, like teletherapy, that efficiently address service gaps and increased student learning needs.

Dr. Barbara Jenkins, who has over 30 years of experience serving the diverse needs of students, including as the former superintendent of Orange County Schools in Florida, says the call to action is simple: “If K-12 education is not only to survive but thrive, we have to pursue new and innovative ways of providing services.”

In this Q&A, Jenkins overviews some of the hurdles school leaders and special educators face and provides insights on embracing technology to serve all students. The interview was conducted as part of the Visionary Voices video series. It has been edited for clarity and brevity.

What lessons have you learned coming out of the pandemic?

I don’t think we will know for some years what the actual impact of the pandemic was on our young people. What we do know is we see increased behaviors and increased needs for support.

Many districts used ESSER dollars to provide additional mental health support, counselors, and individuals who could help children with behaviors and help them overcome some of those issues that they were dealing with.

While there were dollars available, there were not enough counselors available. Those challenges continue in K-12. More and more there’s a need for some alternative solutions other than having enough counselors in place.

Staff shortages continue to plague schools across the country. What are some of the strategies and solutions that you’ve seen schools explore and be effective?

I don’t know that we will in the near future find solutions to the pipeline shortages, and so we have to be creative around the use of technology to expand and multiply the ability to provide those services. In Orange County, as well as in other districts, we have had to explore the use of virtual services for our children in order to meet their needs–whether it’s occupational therapy, physical therapy, psychological services, mental health counseling, and even tutoring.

How do you see teletherapy being useful for schools?

Teletherapy is not only useful; it’s critical. There is no way to provide the services needed by the archaic means of some poor school psychologist or speech pathologist or occupational therapist going from school to school to school. We’re losing time in travel time. We’re losing time in the efficiency of scheduling at the school site. It just will not improve unless we take advantage of technology.

You’ve been an early adopter of technology and speak about the role of emerging technologies. Can you share thoughts on how AI can and should be considered in an education setting?

Ignoring artificial intelligence would be like ignoring and denying the internet when it first became. It has to be our future or we will get run over by that train.

It has the ability and the potential to transform K -12 education as we know it. I think of it as a tool for teachers–not as a replacement for teachers–but a means of multiplying exponentially good practices of individual teachers to serve more students.

Why do you think more schools should embrace technology-based solutions?

Schools should embrace the use of technology to provide student services because it is the only means we have available to overcome the shortages of staff and provide individualized services with precision.

Dr. Barbara Jenkins has been dedicated to serving the needs of students for over 30 years. In 2012, she was named superintendent for Orange County Public Schools, the eighth largest district in the nation, and received both a presidential appointment to the National Board of Education Sciences and The Baldrige Foundation’s Award for Leadership Excellence during her tenure. Dr. Jenkins is currently a chief in residence and leads the Chiefs for Change Women in Leadership initiative, a national bipartisan group of district and state education leaders dedicated to the success of our nation’s youth.

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