The “interrupted learning” experience of the past year had many school teams scrambling to figure out how to support students who typically receive special education services in the general education classroom. How could specialized instruction be delivered online, and how could teachers ensure that students with disabilities continue to have opportunities to learn the same curriculum as their peers?
Complying with federal law, state regulations, and local policies was also a consideration. It is already a carefully choreographed dance to implement the Individualized Education Program (IEP) or provide 504 accommodations in the usual face-to-face instruction. With remote and hybrid learning in place, the complications of providing for students with disabilities rose to a new level.
Teachers largely met the challenge head on. They realized they would have to make adjustments in order to meet the needs of students with disabilities, and they did so in innovative ways. In most cases, districts didn't try to address remote and hybrid learning by amending IEPs. Instead, they created companion documents referred to as “remote learning” or “continuity of instruction” plans to document how services would be delivered. Innovative approaches, including teletherapy and online synchronous instruction, became mainstays for ensuring that access to instruction and specialized services continued.
Rethinking IEPs and 504s
Despite teachers’ efforts, a year of figuring out how to deliver remote learning likely contributed to significant learning loss for students with disabilities. So, as we return to in-person instruction, IEP teams are considering the impact of interrupted schooling. They are asking: Are COVID recovery services needed? What data were collected over the last year to determine student progress and develop new goals? What does a learning recovery plan look like?
One thing is for sure: We should incorporate the lessons teachers learned from online schooling into IEP and 504 planning going forward. These steps will help you rethink IEP and 504 plans to ensure you’re setting all students up for academic success post-COVID.
"We should incorporate the lessons teachers learned from online schooling into IEP and 504 planning going forward."
Look at the Data
We have heard a lot about learning loss, particularly for vulnerable populations. How have students in your district been affected? The best way to find out is to look at the data. Even as testing was paused during the pandemic, there were many ways that teachers measured progress, including teacher-created formative and summative assessments, curriculum-based measurements, observations, and student work samples. Many districts also had the advantage of using digital tools that provide performance and progress insights. Teachers can use this data to plan instruction, consider IEP goals, determine needed 504 accommodations for learning and assessment, and report to caregivers about how their child is doing.
Bottom line: We need baseline data that is valid, reliable, and easy to gather for large groups of students, and that provides the data teachers need to plan. With a clear picture of where students are in relation to their goals, IEP teams can develop new goals for the coming months and year.
Plan for Recovery and Resurgence
Don’t ditch the variety of digital tools you may have used to give students with disabilities an edge during the experiment with remote learning. One-to-one devices were available in many districts, allowing students to use accessibility features like speech-to-text and screen readers across content areas. Apps and web-based programs, like Padlet, have given students a whole new way to capture, organize, and use information. Digital platforms with adaptive capabilities and gaming features that promote engagement have sparked student motivation and allowed them to experience success.
Other helpful resources include content videos and lecture recordings that allow students to rewatch as many times as they need to understand a concept. Some digital tools can even help students build executive functioning skills like organization, flexible thinking, and self-control. Multi-sensory learning that leverages technology and manipulatives allows students to make connections in new ways.
There’s no reason students shouldn’t continue to make use of these supports once they return to the classroom. The IEP of the future will likely benefit from the innovative ways digital tools can support instruction and monitor student progress.
Keep Moving Forward
It has taken a village to keep things going this past year. General and special education teachers, therapists (speech, occupational, physical), counselors, and families have formed collaborative relationships. Kirk Dolson, supervisor of high school education in Loudoun County, Virginia, has witnessed the benefits of such cooperation firsthand. At Park View, a Title I high school in Loudoun where he served as principal, teachers went to extraordinary lengths to establish relationships with students with IEPs and provide services. Thanks to the efforts of staff and family, the cycle of assessment, progress monitoring, and rigorous instruction did not change.
“It would be easy to make excuses this year, but our students with IEPs need to continue to get ahead, and there is only one way to do that,” Dolson says. “We must keep moving forward."
It is vital that we keep those lines of communication open. Transparency and frequent communication build trust. The abundance of digital tools allows teachers to easily access student progress reports and share them with teammates or caregivers, along with positive anecdotes or photos to keep everyone informed. Apps like Remind and Class Dojo make it easy to stay in touch with caregivers and reassure them as students return to in-person schooling.
As we transition to the new normal, our most important tools are patience, kind hearts, strong shoulders to lean on, and open minds. Together, we have braved the unthinkable, and we will use this strength and resilience to carry us forward.
Learning didn’t stop during the pandemic. It just took new forms. This article is part of a series of resources focused on COVID learning recovery and designed to help you plan now for summer school and next year.
Education Research Director, Core Literacy & Early Learning
Dr. Vytas Laitusis
Education Research Director, Supplemental & Intervention Math
Dr. Amy Endo
Education Research Director, Supplemental & Intervention Language & Literacy
Senior Director Community Engagement, HMH; Host of HMH Learning Moments: Teachers in America Podcast