How special education departments can prepare for transition between remote and hybrid learning

The approaching winter could require districts to adapt their special education learning environments

As we march closer to the winter season, students with disabilities are continuing to learn in a variety of different environments — at home, in school, or a little of both — while the COVID-19 pandemic persists. This summer, Public Consulting Group (PCG) wrote its first Special Education Reentry Checklist which was designed to support administrators in their development of plans for a safe and effective reentry for educators, families, and students.

Since the creation of the initial checklist, PCG has developed the Winter Special Education Reentry Checklist. This checklist identifies additional questions that school district leaders should consider as they prepare for transitions to and from remote and hybrid learning as COVID-19 cases fluctuate in their communities. Focused specifically on special education programming, this updated resource serves as a companion to existing local, state, and federal guidance on both education and public health. Used together, these resources support effective planning as you evaluate your readiness and preparedness for the realities of school year 2020–2021.

Health and safety

For schools that have students within buildings either partially or throughout the entire day, health and safety are of utmost importance for both students and staff members. During the 2020–2021 school year, special considerations have been made around socially distanced classrooms, personal protective equipment (PPE), and signage to ensure safety. Maintaining social distance in the classroom, especially for students who thrive when they are in close proximity to their peers, has been no easy feat. This is especially true for staff members who need to be in close proximity to students with significant needs.

At the same time, as we’ve said before, teachers and school leaders are not doctors or scientists, and they should not be expected to have expertise in the spread of infectious diseases. In the absence of specific guidance supporting the implementation of special education during reentry, it is important for school administrators to make informed decisions on the nuances that are specific to providing a free and appropriate education to students with IEPs (Individualized Education Plans). This requires advice from multiple parties — the board of health, the district physician, the district counsel, and other district administrators.

The Winter Special Education Reentry Checklist offers key questions and actionable next steps about these matters including:

  • Does your school district have a COVID-19 Special Education Steering Committee? (Although not a mandate in New Jersey, such a committee may serve as a best practice for school districts.)
  • Has your school district procured a supply of necessary PPE to partially or fully reopen its school buildings?
  • If your district is returning from a fully virtual to a hybrid or fully in-person model, has the district measured and marked classrooms to prepare for social distancing?

IEP development

For students engaged in all-learning environments, IEP development was impacted by the school closures of the 2019–2020 school year. School districts continue to face evaluation backlogs, limited capacity to conduct IEPs, and IEP timeline issues. Furthermore, some members of the Child Study Team may be working from home, requiring access to files electronically. At the same time, while IEPs continue to be developed, teachers in hybrid and virtual learning environments struggle with developing strategies to address students’ goals within their IEPs.

The checklist offers key questions and actionable next steps about these matters including:

  • Do all IEP team members have access to necessary student files for their 2020–2021 student caseloads?
  • Do all new district staff, especially new district staff who may be working from home, have correct access to the district’s virtual IEP case management system?
  • Are your IEP backlogs from the 2019–2020 school year cleared?
  • Have your district’s IEP teams considered developing Distance Learning Plans (DLPs) for students with IEPs?

Instruction and special education programming

When students first began to receive education remotely through virtual or hybrid instruction, school districts did not have an existing model to support the consistent instruction of their students through this new medium. Creating an instructional model for online learning is important for all teachers, especially teachers who support students with disabilities. An instructional model serves as a tool to promote necessary adaptations that need to be made in the areas of course design, curriculum, learning experiences, and professional responsibilities under a virtual or hybrid learning model. Having such a model and providing instruction in hybrid or virtual learning environments requires professional development. Last spring, professional development for teachers on virtual instruction was in its infancy. Now, there are several online opportunities that districts can provide to support teachers in a range of areas they likely never received formal training on.

The Winter Special Education Reentry Checklist offers key questions and actionable next steps about these matters including:

  • Does your school district have a model for conducting its instruction in a hybrid or virtual learning environment? Specifically, has your district assessed the necessary adaptations that need to be made in the areas of course design, curriculum, learning experiences, and professional responsibilities under a virtual or hybrid learning model?
  • Do your teachers, paraprofessionals, and related service providers have access to professional development to support instruction and service provision in hybrid or fully virtual learning environments?

Given the prospect of a “second wave” of COVID-19, further complicated by the upcoming flu season, school districts will continue to educate students through many uncertainties ahead. As some school districts plan for full or partial physical reentry, the prospect of having to suddenly pivot to a hybrid or fully virtual learning environment remains a reality. Under these circumstances, preparation for all these scenarios continues to be of critical importance.