Unfortunately, the sudden nationwide transition to online learning last spring yielded less than promising results. Studies show that these newly remote learners had trouble engaging and keeping up with their courses, resulting in rampant absenteeism and what researchers from the Brookings Institute have dubbed the “COVID slide.”
If the impromptu transition to online learning has been difficult for typical learners, for many of the more than 7 million students with special needs in American public schools, it has been even worse. Without access to the in-person services, from academic support to physical therapy to counseling, students, and their families, are floundering.
A few steps to set us up for success this year:
Do Your Homework
One of the first steps you can take is to do a bit of research. Explore the resources, both technological and organizational, to prepare you to successfully support your students.
For example, the Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) can help provide you with the information and resources you need to meet the unique and evolving needs of your students with disabilities in these unprecedented times.
It’s also important to remember that even students who are not receiving special education services may still require supplemental support. For example, students for whom English is a second language may find the transition to online learning particularly difficult, and parents may feel ill-equipped to assist their child’s learning in a second language.
Assess Each Child’s Needs
A significant part of “doing your homework” means taking time before the semester begins, and even into the first weeks of the online session, to assess your students individually. Reach out privately to students and their families to discuss the online learning process with them. Consider it a virtual home visit.
Take the time to listen to the students' and parents’ wellbeing and increased responsibilities. Determine whether they have access to the technology the child will need to be successful — and if there is room to support while their child is learning.
If your student was receiving physical therapy at school, is this something the parents can do with the child at home, or does the child need at-home care? In extraordinary circumstances such as these, special provisions may be made to ensure children receive essential services in a manner that is safe for the child, their family, and the care provider.
Likewise, if the child was depending on the school to meet their nutritional needs, they may be at significant risk for malnutrition, particularly in this period of economic decline. Fortunately, there are resources available to ensure children receive the meals they need, even when schools are closed.
Without a doubt, understanding the unique needs of each child, and their family, will require a significant investment of time and effort. But ensuring that the child’s basic physical, emotional, and technological needs are met is essential to their online learning success.
All of your students will likely require some measure of teaching to help them learn to use learning technology efficiently. Students with special needs, however, might necessitate some additional support, especially in locating and using the assistive technology (AT) such as screen readers or closed captioning.
You can also use this opportunity to integrate the technology into your curriculum so that students are developing technical proficiency even as they learn traditional course content. For example, you might use a project-based learning strategy that requires students to design and create an online video presenting the great battles of the Revolutionary War.
For students with disabilities, projects like these can present an extraordinary opportunity to contribute with a team of their peers. Students who may otherwise feel marginalized and excluded in a traditional classroom, can take center stage online and offer contributions fitted to their unique strengths without the pressure of their peers being physically with them.
Turn It Off
Online learning may be the best and safest option we have right now, but that means that children are going to be significantly increasing their daily screen time. This can pose significant risks to children’s physical, social, and academic well-being, including poor quality sleep and insomnia, difficulty with concentration and memory, and feelings of loneliness and depression.
It’s imperative to encourage students and families to use screen time judiciously. Educate parents on the importance of limiting children’s screen time, especially when they’re learning remotely. Encourage parents to select only quality games and programs and to watch and play along with the child. Above all, encourage them to set a daily screen cutoff time, and a time for family and play that has nothing to do with technology.
The sudden transition to remote learning has been a difficult one for many students. But for students with disabilities, the challenges can be particularly great. Fortunately, there are seemingly innumerable ways to support the success of students with special needs learning from home. It just requires a bit of creativity, some strategy, and lots of (socially distanced) teamwork!