Home schooling was not the vision for 2020 for most Florida teachers, principals and parents, especially for those with students with disabilities.
Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran has made it clear that all K-12 schools in the state will remain closed through May 1 due to COVID-19, and most students in North Central Florida started remote learning after their spring break ended on March 30.
As school districts adapt, teachers and administrators are discovering the unique challenges of teaching students with disabilities remotely.
“We’re building an airplane mid-flight,” said Barbara Johns, exceptional student education director of Bradford County.
Bradford County is currently providing individualized coursework through paper packets for students in exceptional student education classes but is in the process of creating video lessons and organizing virtual therapy sessions for these students.
The purpose of exceptional student education is to help students with disabilities to progress in school with services such as special teaching methods, technology devices, therapies and more.
Students who qualify for exceptional student education services can include those with autism, language impairment, deaf or hard of hearing and gifted students, according to the Florida Department of Education.
In the 2017-2018 school year, 14% of all U.S. public school students received special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
For these students, the switch to remote learning may hinder their well-being.
“I am worried about this time out,” Johns said. “Not so much of the regression of their skills, but what it’s doing to them emotionally.”
This sentiment is shared by Greg Valcante, director of the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities at the University of Florida.
“We see this as a particularly difficult time because what we’ve learned about individuals on the autism spectrum is that they do well when they have a set and predictable routine,” Valcante said. “Now, they don’t have a set and predictable routine.”
Similar to Bradford County, Alachua County is utilizing paper packets and technology for exceptional student education courses, according to Donna Kidwell, exceptional student education director of Alachua County. Teachers will accommodate coursework to each student based on their academic needs and access to a device and internet.
Marion County is also creating customized services for its students in exceptional student education classes, according to district spokesperson Kevin Christian.
Creating an individualized learning plan for students with disabilities may be easier because of the lower student-to-teacher ratio in exceptional student education classes, but these students often need more attention than traditional students.
“So, a teacher may reach out to six students or eight students in any given day, versus 25 students in a high school class right now,” Christian said. “But, it still is challenging because the needs of those six or eight students could be far greater than the needs of those 25.”
Furthermore, some students with disabilities receive therapy at school that cannot be administered remotely. Those, for example, in an Individualized Education Program sometimes require physical therapy.
“Well, there’s no way for us to provide that at this time,” Christian said, “because many of those students have compromised health systems and those employees are not going to private homes.”
To alleviate the burden on school districts and parents, Valcante’s center is proving free remote services for 14 counties in North Central Florida, including Bradford, Alachua and Marion counties.
These services include instructional strategies, behavior management and communication training in addition to training and consultations for parents and caretakers.
Valcante has seen an increase in people using their services and expects this trend to continue as school campuses remain closed until May 1 or longer.