Easing the transition back to school for students with disabilities

The article originally appeared in District Administration on May 26, 2020 by Amy Onaga.


Although schools in many states will remain closed throughout the summer due to concerns about COVID-19, many districts are preparing to reopen their campuses in the fall or even earlier. A big challenge that districts will face in the upcoming school year is transitioning students with disabilities back to the school setting, says Robin S. Ballard, a partner with Schenck, Price, Smith & King, LLP, in Florham Park, N.J.


While educators may be eager to bring students with disabilities up to speed as quickly as possible, Ballard recommends that districts initially focus on reorientation. Students may need time to readjust to the school schedule and environment.


Consider these best practices to facilitate students’ transition to the school setting:


· Keep collecting data for future evaluations, assessments. “Right now, it’s important for educators to be checking in on students and where they are functioning,” says Ballard. Data collected during school closures will help the IEP team determine whether a student has experienced regression and gauge the level at which the student will be performing when he comes back. School officials should use this information to zero-in on the specific areas that should be addressed in evaluations and assessments once schools reopen, she adds.


· Go back to basics. Districts should expect a longer transition period for some students with disabilities, Ballard says. She indicated that educators may need to focus on reorienting students before delving into the curriculum. “In some cases, you may need to go back to basics, such as teaching the student to look at you,” she says. For other students, special education teachers may need to increase visual aids, such as picture schedules. Even if a student moved beyond visual aids before the pandemic, he may need them again to facilitate the transition back to the school routine, Ballard advises.


· Tell parents and students what to expect. Districts should also consider sending home a letter to students and their families before brick-and-mortar classes resume. The letter may provide information such as who the student’s teacher will be, the size of the student’s class, and a detailed schedule of the first week, Ballard says. That way, parents and students will know what to expect and prepare ahead of time.


· Address trauma and mental health needs. “Teachers are currently seeing an uptick in depression in students with disabilities,” Ballard says. “This is understandable because these students have been cut off from everything they were used to.” Before the upcoming school year begins, districts should train teachers and paraprofessionals how to recognize signs of mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, Ballard suggests. Districts should also remind staffers where to submit referrals for mental health assessments.


Additionally, consider collaborating with community agencies and other educational agencies to deliver appropriate counseling and other mental health supports. For example, one district is working with an outside therapeutic school to deliver services in the public school setting once schools reopen, Ballard says.


Amy K. Onaga, Esq., covers special education legal issues for Special Ed Connection, a DA sister publication.

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