Remote Learning in Special Education


Having met educators from around the world, I’ve found that creating equity of access has been one of the key issues facing both large and small school districts. I have spoken in the past of the particular challenges and efforts for creating equity in New York City, a city that was literally designed with separation and segregation in mind. Across the country, we face issues of providing equitable access to people in poverty, people of color, native populations, and especially people with disabilities. That last category is the largest minority and about one we all have the likelihood to become a part of if only we live long enough for our vision, mobility, or mental clarity to be lessened.

Remote learning haves and have nots with digital sneetches

My work with students with disabilities (and heavily students with autism) along with my own learning/social challenges has made me keen on noting the way that population is frequently ignored or, perhaps even worse, seen as other, which is even evidence through pop culture. But I have also long been an advocate for the power of digital tools to provide access for students and adults with some of the most profound challenges. And while I recognize that this time will likely only exacerbate the challenges and inequity that already exists in schools, my past work shows that there can be opportunity as well.And, of course, those concerns about equity, especially amongst students in poverty and students with disabilities were ones that a number of school systems seemed unprepared to address in this new paradigm. Some school systems were so concerned that they initially forbade online learning and are still taking a lowest common denominator approach to equity. There remains a digital divide for a quarter of American households that must be overcome if we hope to provide even marginal access for our most challenged students. I have helped to coordinate the response in the sudden switch to remote learning for New York City Schools and more specifically District 75, citywide special education. So I have had a first-hand account of what it looks like to try to ensure equity, consistency, and meaningful instruction in a time of crisis for students with disabilities in the nation’s largest city. Here is some of what I have noted, and it has made me hopeful.

Key Steps

Thankfully many of the keys to quality instruction and good leadership within a school building transfer to remote learning. And I use the term the term remote learning purposefully, because it communicates the variety of methods that can be used to connect students with disabilities to learning outside of their regular school. That variety of offerings for the diversity of needs is just one element for finding success. Here are others.

Know your students well

This remains rule #1 for good teaching. You can’t be effective if you don’t know where both academically and personally. What do they need and what will encourage them to address that need? Now that looks even different in a remote context. It requires learning about what they can and will have available from devices and wifi to paper and pencils to manipulatives they can use for learning. You will need to know what is available in the apartment or the shelter they may be in. And if that’s very little, you need to adjust and recalibrate.

2 children and their mother work from home

Beyond that we will need to address the emotional health of our students and even moreso now. It is such an uncertain time and our first success is making sure students have an outlet and feel they are still connected and cared for. You can dig deeper into the 7 Keys for SEL and use recommended apps to help, but ultimately we all understand how to make a student feel safe and connected. Yes, this moment is unprecedented, but rebuilding students’ emotional well-being is something we have have practice with after Hurricane Sandy, California wild fires, or school shootings. The only difference is our hugs have to generally be virtual now.

Maximize Communication

To Families

Now how can you give build those connections if you’re not actually connecting? So the first part of this is, of course, connecting with the family at home and determining what the best mode of contact and what parameters may interfere with instruction. Granted much of this should have been happening long before this transition, but it’s not too late to start. These could be technological or family responsibilities of child care. And while there are great tools for that like Remind for translated texts, Class Dojo for simple visual communication, email or a simple translated form, we can still use phones and school websites if that is the best means for the family. In fact, many initial contacts will need to be phone or text, because emails get lost in the onslaught and our students in shelters or other challenging situations won’t be able to connect otherwise. (especially when there are 8 teachers each sending 5 emails each). And there is important information that may not have been considered like ongoing care for children who receive services cleaning assistive technology devices for medically fragile students. This also means communicating with the surrounding community to see what resources can be provided for hardware, network connections, health care, and ongoing food services. 

Provide Basic Needs

While New York City has no blanket solution to this issue, nor should it given the diversity of need, there are many options provided to parents. In addition to social media, emails, or texts from the Chancellor (super teacher boss of NYC) the revised and accessible NYCDOE website has a wealth of information. This includes Learn at Home resources that include communication, activities, and access to basic resources. This included the continuation of free meals and the distribution of up to 300,000 iPads for those who needed it and it wasn’t provided by the individual schools. There are also regional enrichment centers for the children of essential personnel and whose needs cannot be met otherwise. While all of these were provided on a large scale, gladly the need has been far less than anticipated.

school lunch worker with food

In special education though there are sometimes unusual circumstances. How do we provide physical therapy for students not physically present? Video conferencing is good, but does it provide enough fidelity. There have been online counseling through better help and therapy through Great Speech for a while. People exercise using videos all the time and join virtual classes in Peloton. What about my students who are already in hospitals and receive home instruction? Health care is going to, as it already often does, play a major role in our surrounding decisions. In fact many of the hospital teachers and therapists have been the most eager to learn the new remote learning technologies.

To the Community

On a technical scale it meant ramping up and creating the largest Google education domain ever in under 2 days. Some details are still being worked out, and many school and district level leaders already had the foresight putting these systems in place years before, so that the transition has been much smoother fo them. Now providing on such a massive scale may seem infeasible for smaller areas, but that’s why reaching out for community partnerships with companies can play such a large role. And there has been no shortage of materials being offered for free. And on a school based level you can do some of the same by creating a remote learning website embedded with all those options. 

With Students

Understand that while there are many video conferencing platforms like Teams, Hangouts Chat, or Zoom, that need not be the only way to encourage student communication. Videos can be asynchronous through Flipgrid or in backchannel discussion zones  like Padlet or Today’s Meet. You can check for feedback during direct instruction using Nearpod, Pear Deck, Classflow, or SMART Learning Suite. And then there are the full fledged messaging in LMS systems like Google Classroom or Schoology or Class Dojo or Seesaw for younger learners. I have grown to really like Parlay as a hub for discussions for students who are capable.

Make Privacy a Concern

There are important issues of privacy for all students and we must adhere to COPPA, FERPA, or any other state/national guidelines and shifting to remote learning can cause some real concerns. There are particular issues though for students with disabilities regarding IEP mandates and teletherapy. We are still obligated to provide mandated therapy sessions as long as school remains in session. To aid in that though DOH announced that during the COVID19 outbreak therapists could provide sessions through unsecured platforms like Zoom or Teams. But be careful on these platforms though to make sure students’ full names or other identifying information is not visible. Make sure student media consent forms are up to date. And if you haven’t been doing it with students already, now is the perfect time to address digital citizenship with students.

Accessibility & Differentiation in Instruction

Let’s begin that you will want to provide as much consistency as possible, but you don’t want that obligation to prevent you and the students from being flexible and creative. This could easily be several posts itself since implementing universal design into instruction can be demonstrated in several ways. Let’s begin with accessibility. I have shared many times about the variety of digital tools and how they can be used to aid students with disabilities in accessing content in school. That may mean text to speech or picture communication symbols through the Read + Write extension, Microsoft’s Immersive Reader, or the Clicker app. Maybe you want to take advantage of the free trial for Boardmaker’s picture symbols. Teachers in my district definitely want to. It might begin with web accessibility and making sure your school’s site can be read by the visually impaired or can be easily translated for multilingual learners.

Boardmaker COVID-19 picture symbols

Beyond that though it is about modifying instruction to meet student’s needs. Obviously key to differentiation and personalization of instruction is knowing your student well (which an IEP is supposed to be helpful with), because you can’t meet their instructional needs if you don’t know them. You can study deep about differentiation and UDL, but in the simplest terms it means giving options. And that’s good instruction anyway especially if we allow for student creation maximizing Bloom’s taxonomy. We can’t adjust the environment now, but we can adjust other modes of our instruction. That means providing multiple means of sharing content (text, visuals, videos, etc.), engaging in the learning process (reading, podcasts, physical interactives, etc.), and demonstrating mastery (reports, digital story, video, performance, etc.)

Remote (and regular) teaching requires flexibility with all students but even moreso for students with disabilities. What does that look like in practice? It can be something as simple as using built-in Google Classroom tools to allow students to personalize and reiterate on their work. You can also use technology to help make that easier even remotely. It can be as simple as using a Google Form, a Classcraft quest, or a BrainPOP learning pathway to create remediation for students. 

tub of math manipulatives

It can take a wholly different look too. Perhaps those systems are too complicated for your students or they don’t have ready access to technology for it. And it doesn’t have to be digital. Students can engage with physical manipulatives to demonstrate mathematical concepts in the vein of 3-act math. One of the best things schools have done for young learners and students with disabilities is not put together meaningless packets that they likely couldn’t read or physically access anyway. It was putting together (well-cleaned) tubs of physical tools and manipulatives for students to engage with at home.

Find Resources

For many this has simply meant getting a long list of available technological resources and freebies. And while those, like my Coronavirus Curriculum, are of some value to those who are already somewhat adept at integrating technology, it does little to help those who are just beginning. So you may begin simply by connecting teachers and parents to more traditional Teach From Home resources. But a lot of parents and teachers will need more than lists. They will need ongoing training and an understanding of how technology can best be implemented to ensure success and also of why tech alone is not necessarily the answer. That is why my district STEM team’s site has a number of these resources linked along with presentations, slides, and live webinars in addition to guides like those found on Learning Keeps Going

Tech Learning for Staff & Students

In addition to basic instruction, you will need to guide staff and students through some logistical basics of what an at-home learning schedule may look like or get them them started with a Rapid Transition to Online Learning (RTOL) training which can begin your 3 Day Remote Learning PD. You’ll have to consider configuring student accounts and the distribution of devices and that for some students and families these will need to be set up in advance and managed remotely. How will parents reach us and how can we call them? Are we expected to use our cell phones or will tools like Microsoft Teams, Google Voice Free Conference, or Free Calling suffice. And while it is valuable to provide in-house training yourselves, companies will provide them too like Flipgrid Learning From Home. D75 STEM Site.

Clarifying Roles & Related Services

In addition to the myriad ways you need to adjust learning as described above we also need to find ho our paraprofessionals and related service providers. Are they co-teachers in a Google Classroom or do they create their own learning zones? Do we do live sessions or asynchronous recordings in Flipgrid? Should I use many visualizations or email PDFs? There is no clearly defined answer as it depends on the skill of the professional and the individual needs of the students. A single Classroom can be great for clarity so everything is housed there or there may be added value in going to other resources like Soundtrap to record audio session for speech therapy or having students use speech apps and resources like Articulation Station. Maybe multilingual learners can simultaneously access Microsoft translate and have teacher communication spoken to them in their home language. Maybe physical therapist have students visit GoNoodle or try the Avenger’s workout. Maybe adaptive PE can have afternoon online training sessions like my brother has been doing.

You are limited only by the available technology and your imagination. I will say I have been impressed seeing some paras take the lead as tech experts so their teachers could focus on content. Still other paras could translate and others, with limited tech, made phone calls to families in the morning for mental health check-ins. FInd your role and serve it to the best of your capabilities, and know that your responsibilities to the students continue, but there are tools, training, and coworkers to help.

Future Facing

As I said before there is no shortage of challenges facing all people, and especially people with disabilities in this situation we find ourselves in. I am in the county (Queens) of the city (NYC) in the state (NY) in the country (USA) with the most COVID-19 cases. I get the challenge. I know some of the broad shortcomings I have seen in my district and the exasperation I have felty recently with some leadership that was often obstructive or absentee. And, let me be clear that I have heard this echoed by educators and administrators throughout the city. I don’t wish to speak of any individual shortcomings, and I know how much I don’t want those roles. These are not jobs I do not envy or will admit I could fully understand. In some ways though I’ve stepped into leadership in this crisis.

NYC School Chancellor beside the mayor at a press conference

There have been broad challenges for equity, communication, and inclusion that are a struggle in my city and many others. Some of that is the static nature of existing systems and some are related to too many filters between changemakers and the people on the ground. But this is a wonderful opportunity to fix many of the existing problems in society, education, and our connection and facilitation of a world for people with disabilities. Change is always slow and any effort at it inevitably leads to pushing back from those who have become comfortable..except in times of tumult like now. This could be a brief shining moment to correct those long-simmering weakness, but the window is quickly closing. 

As I shared above, the ongoing training provided by organizations like my district will be crucial in this time as we train teachers, administrators, students, and parents to adapt to this new paradigm. We even have training heavily focused on accessibility and translation. UNC has a wonderful guide for Supporting Individuals with Autism through Uncertain Times. Exploring the challenges and continuing the conversation as it is happening through ISTE and EdSurge can move us forward . You can hear the discussion on special education that featured my good friend Luis Perez and myself or check out ISTE’s 7 Ways to make Remote Learning Accessible.

5 thoughts on “Remote Learning in Special Education

  1. Thank you for this helpful article. I’m a special ed teacher/head of department and currently making resources for parents to use at home to support their children. Use of technology does an important job of making our students feel connected to us.

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