6 ways to support students with disabilities during COVID-19 school closures

Like many offices, mine is closed right now, so most mornings I start my workday in front of my laptop with headphones on attending my morning standup meeting at my kitchen table.

My 10-year-old starts his school day doing the exact same thing. But instead of participating in a meeting with 30 adults, he’s attending class with a third of his classroom peers. Virtual learning for 30 kids is overwhelming, so they stagger meeting times throughout the day. The hangouts are loud, kids are talking over kids, and there are many giggles. It is chaotic.

One day, in the midst of the virtual confusion, my son expressed he was struggling to hear, and his teacher suggested that he turn on the live captioning feature. His teacher went on to provide a math lesson and review reading assignments. A couple students presented their science projects.

I am grateful for his amazing teacher and this thoughtful learning experience. My son has everything he needs to set him up for success, but I can’t help thinking of students I previously taught and wondering whether or not online learning would have worked for them. Even under the best-case learning environments, many were left with unmet needs.

We cannot forget that many students need specialized, explicit instruction and access to materials in different formats.”

During a typical school day in the building, most students meet with their classroom or homeroom teachers while some students attend special education or English language programs. These students are served by educators certified in specialty areas (e.g., English language development). As we shift to distance learning, we cannot overlook how these students’ needs may not be met and how we can make small adjustments to our online instruction to account for their specific learning needs.

The importance of accessibility and accommodations in distance education

In response to school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, states across the nation are rapidly developing continuous learning plans so districts can complete the 2019–20 school year. These plans require educators to ramp up online learning.

We cannot forget that many students need specialized, explicit instruction and access to materials in different formats. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 7 million, or 14%, of all public school students ages 3–21 received special education services during the 2017–18 school year under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). This is no small number, and it does not include our students who are currently on 504 plans.

14% of all public school students ages 3–21 received special education services during the 2017–18 school year.”

Educators are facing challenges translating federal guidance around providing free and appropriate public education (FAPE) to children with disabilities during coronavirus school closures. Here are a few ways districts can remain compliant with accessibility requirements under IDEA while supporting educators and students in maintaining access to specialized instruction.

1. Check for accessibility features and compliance

No matter which online platform your district uses to deliver online curriculum, make sure everyone is familiar with the accessibility features that platform supports. Many students who use assistive technology (AT) need to have the ability to utilize their own AT device or their own AT software. If the platform is not accessible for AT devices, then the student could be excluded from instruction and participation with their peers.

Fortunately, many platforms have features such as zoom or magnification, closed captioning, and keyboard navigation. The following links provide information on common online classroom platforms and what accessibility features are available: Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and Skype.

2. Teach the layout of new platforms

If your class has never met online before, there will be students who won’t know how to use all the wonderful features most of these platforms provide. Teaching the platform’s layout will be the most important step for any student who is an AT user and has never used the site before.

Take plenty of time to review the features and explain how to navigate the site, such as how to screen share, share documents, use the chat feature, raise a hand, and find the mute button (which could save your sanity). Treat these mini lessons like you would setting up your classroom routines (e.g., using the restroom) during the first week of school. In other words, be explicit, let them practice, and repeat many times for fluency. We cannot assume that all kids will find these features or use them intuitively. Therefore, walking them through will set everyone up for success.

3. Lay down ground rules

Remember your first day of class and how almost an entire day was spent on the schedule, rules of the classroom, and classroom expectations? Spend time to lay the ground rules for your online class and your students will not only thank you, but you’ll be happier, too!

Nothing is the same right now for anyone, everything has changed, and students with disabilities need to be seen.”

Begin by including your students in setting rules and building off of their ideas. Ask students what they will need to be successful. This simple request can give you a plethora of insight and is a great way to start building community, expectations, and ground rules into your new online practices. Then create ground rules together, such as when to turn on video, muting when you’re not speaking, and when to use the raise-your-hand feature or chat. Give examples of what good online learners look like and sound like.

4. Get curious and ease anxiety

Many students, teachers, and parents are using online tools for the first time. It is helpful to foster curiosity and ask questions about what is and is not working at home for a student. As we know, every student is different, every home life is different, and these differences can be a wide range.

To help with anxiety, think ahead and give students and parents schedules ahead of time to prepare not only physically, but also emotionally. There are students with disabilities who may need more detailed schedules requiring specific task analysis, so be mindful this may be the case. Sometimes the transition from home life to school life is jarring, so prepping students can ease anxiety about the unknown. Transitions can be especially difficult for students with disabilities, so take time to implement mindfulness and consider social and emotional needs before diving into a lecture or instruction. It is worth your time to ground students and take into consideration their feelings and anxieties.

5. Consider universal design for learning (UDL)

Universal design for learning (UDL) gives a framework that ensures our instruction is more inclusive of all students. CAST gives us a tremendous amount of materials to support online teaching and instruction by utilizing the UDL guidelines, which call for multiple means of engagement, multiple means of representation, and multiples means of action and expression.

Consider whether you have multiple ways to engage the students. For example, is video use ok for all? Some students may find it difficult to see themselves while some students may thrive, so provide variations for both ends of the spectrum.

[C]reate ground rules together, such as when to turn on video, muting when you’re not speaking, and when to use the raise your hand feature or chat.”

Ask yourself, do you offer different modes of teaching the curriculum, such as video, PowerPoint, shared documents, or student presentations? Multiple means of representation can help you reach all students.

Lastly, what are some options of multiple ways for students to respond? Are they only responding verbally? Are there other options, such as creating pictures, drawings, or writing? Is a student able to respond with their AT device, such as refreshable braille, keyboard navigation, or switch use?

6. Give grace and time

No one will get this new world of teaching right the first time. We all need time to play, we need time to fail, and we need time to recover. Now more than ever, patience, understanding, and compassion are needed.

Some students will need to spend time with a specialist, whether that’s for speech language, special education, or occupational or physical therapy. Offer extra time that you will be available for questions, for help with a project, and maybe as a listener. More importantly be the conduit for the specialists, students, and parents so everyone can work together.

Nothing is the same right now for anyone, everything has changed, and students with disabilities need to be seen.

Christine Pitts, former policy advisor at NWEA, contributed to this post.

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