Teletherapy has been powering virtual special education for years

This article originally appeared in The Hechinger Report by Tara Garcia Mathewson on April 9, 2020.


Schools face challenges switching to remote services, but they’re not unheard of


While the pace at which the coronavirus has forced schools to transition to online services is unprecedented, the act of providing these services online is not. And that includes doing special education online.

The idea of continuing to serve students with disabilities paralyzed many school leaders in recent weeks, and even led some to cancel school for everyone rather than tackle the challenge of providing special education online. But Kristin Martinez, the clinical director at PresenceLearning, which provides online special education services, said school leaders should take heart.

“This is doable,” she said. “Absolutely there are students who have been receiving services this way for years, successfully.”

PresenceLearning provides licensed speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists and behavioral and mental health professionals to hundreds of schools all over the country. Over the last decade, the company has facilitated more than 2.5 million teletherapy sessions.

In normal times, schools contract with PresenceLearning to outsource certain special education services. When it’s time for a student’s session with a speech-language pathologist or occupational therapist, for example, they sit in front of a computer to communicate with the provider virtually. Martinez said schools have to provide on-site support for the student, whether it’s a paraprofessional or a speech aide, and the level of support they’re expected to give depends on the needs of the student.

Right now, with millions of students at home due to the coronavirus pandemic, many parents are filling in as their children transition to receiving services remotely. Teletherapy under these circumstances can’t exactly mimic the quality of in-person services, but Martinez said it is still possible to serve students with disabilities. At the very least, teletherapy can maintain a level of continuity in children’s lives during a time of upheaval.

PresenceLearning is offering schools use of its platform without requiring them to also work with the company’s providers. That at least checks technology off the list of things to figure out as schools move to remote teaching and learning.

Glendora Tremper, coordinator of special education at Springs Charter Schools in Southern California, said that has been a big help. Already the charter network contracted with PresenceLearning to serve some of its students, but now it has taken advantage of the opportunity to use the proprietary platform in-house.

Tremper said a major source of frustration and stress among her staff so far has been the desire to replicate in-person services while schools are closed. “We have to be very clear that we cannot copy what happens in the brick and mortar and just make a cookie cutter copy of it and put it in the home setting,” Tremper said. “That is not going to happen.”

She has urged her staff to start where they can, do what they can, and work to continuously improve the quality of their services as long as teletherapy is their only option. She hopes this helps people move past the initial fear and paralysis of the challenge they all face. Once schools reopen, they will have to figure out how much time and support special education law requires they make up for students, based on what they were able to offer remotely.

So far, Springs Charter Schools has started conducting video sessions with students, going through the same types of exercises and routines they would have done in person. Occupational therapists, for example, are still helping children practice fine motor and life skills, like tying shoelaces. One created a video to share with parents that explained how they might teach the skill at home. Many of the sessions in recent weeks have served as a sort of consult with parents looking for guidance on how to keep up their children’s progress. Some parents haven’t been able to connect via video or they haven’t felt comfortable doing so, so Tremper’s team has conducted similar consults over the phone. Special education teachers are sitting in on the general education classes their colleagues run, offering follow-up support to students they normally shadow in class during virtual office hours, or via one-on-one video or phone calls. They are going into breakout rooms in video conference platforms to provide additional guidance and support in real-time.

Martinez and Tremper will discuss these strategies and best practices for teletherapy during a webinar on April 9 at 2 p.m. EST. While registration has already hit capacity, the webinar will be available online April 10 at presencelearning.com.

One bright spot for serving special education students is that the lines of communication between schools and homes are usually well-established. Schools already have relationships with the parents and guardians of kids who qualify for special education services because they participate in the design of individualized education plans. Schools now need to capitalize on those connections and the plans themselves to move forward with services everyone already knows students need.

It’s logistically difficult work, but as online learning providers and teletherapists have known for a long time, it is possible.

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Future of Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about education innovation.

This story about teletherapy was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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