Virtual Learning Impacts Special Education

General Joseph Hooker's statue outside the Massachusetts Statehouse is part of the Haunted Boston Ghost Tours, Oct. 15, 2019. Photo by Gaia De Simoni/ BU News Service

By Sophie Moritz 
Boston University Statehouse Program

BOSTON — The pandemic required special education to make some critical adaptations. Professionals say the impacts of virtual learning are now showing up, particularly involving students who needed to bridge the “digital divide.”

As a part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the federal government defines a child with a disability “as having an intellectual disability, a hearing impairment, a speech or language impairment, a visual impairment, a serious emotional disturbance, an orthopedic impairment, autism, traumatic brain injury, another health impairment, a specific learning disability, deaf-blindness, or multiple disabilities, and who, by reason thereof, needs special education and related services.” 

Individuals eligible for special education services under IDEA receive an individualized education plan to provide services and special education and must receive a free and appropriate education.

Linda Banks-Santilli is a clinical associate professor at Boston University’s Wheelock College of Education and Human Development. Banks-Santilli taught as a special education teacher in Boston Public Schools for 12 years before BU and currently teaches pre-practicum courses for students studying for their licenses in special education.

Banks-Santilli noted the Office of Special Education Programs declared at the start of the pandemic that if a school district provided virtual and remote learning services when the schools were closed, they must include those same services for children with disabilities who require special education.

But that presented a problem where there was a “digital divide,” Banks-Santilli said. Students and families “could not rely on the technological infrastructure, so special education kids were at a complete loss for any opportunities to participate remotely. 

“So, in thinking about their disabilities, we would see a significant decline in their progress on the individual education program and the individual education program goals,” she continued. 

Additionally, students with more severe disabilities struggled with access to education through virtual learning. For example, some of the online platforms did not align easily for children with more severe disabilities who are non-verbal.

“So, think of the severe autism-spectrum students who use augmentative devices to speak. Teachers complained that systems (such as iPad apps to help dictation) did not integrate well with Zoom or with other types of platforms,” Banks-Santilli said. As a result, those students found it challenging to address their learning needs.

Teachers also expressed concern with social learning goals. Banks-Santilli said that incorporating social development was difficult unless students had siblings they could use as classmates.

There were some positive contributions of an online education model. 

“In a report, I read, some of the parents had good experiences saying the individual education program was followed,” Banks-Santilli said. Parents thought that teachers did their best, and service providers (such as occupational therapists, speech and language therapists, physical therapists, and applied behavior analysis specialists). However, “the service providers said they did not ordinarily offer their services through technology, so they had to adapt. They said they began to create a lot of activities, but they had to rely on the family to carry out the activities.”

Banks-Santilli expressed concern regarding referrals. 

“It is hard now to refer a child to special education services,” she said. “It used to be a lot easier, but then the state of Massachusetts realized that the rates kept going up and they thought that in some cases, kids referred did not have special needs.” 

“They then put in place a lot of data that needed to be collected over time to refer a student. I think it would be hard to do that over Zoom because you would be doing different documentation virtually,” she said.

Special education for K-12 students has seen changes as well since virtual learning.

Judy Rush is the curriculum director for Pittsfield Public Schools. She explained that they could not do a lot of complete assessments on students during the pandemic because they could not be close to them.

Rush described Pittsfield Public School’s response to intervention.

“Response to intervention is a series of coming up with an intervention, coming up with goals, monitoring it, and seeing if it works,” Rush said. The teachers do everything they can to intervene before putting a child on an individualized education program. 

“Especially because you just don’t know how much of it is missed instruction,” she continued.

However, students who were already on individualized education programs faced different obstacles than general education students. And different levels of special education students were affected differently. 

First, students with “severe cognitive disabilities,” who may be non-verbal, were the hardest to reach during virtual learning. These students were the first to be welcomed back when regulations eased.

The next level of students were those with “moderate cognitive disabilities” who were still substantially in separate classroom environments. They had mixed results from online learning.

Finally, those students with specific learning disabilities such as reading, writing, and math were easiest to engage with over Zoom.

“In the beginning, when we came back to school, the special education students probably had a greater gap of unfinished learning, but I think we have tried hard to close that gap as best as we could,” Rush said.

Funding from the Student Opportunity Act has allowed Pittsfield Public Schools to develop a pilot program for inclusion at Stearns Elementary School. Coming back from virtual learning showed that students with “moderate cognitive disabilities” do not benefit from being in separate classrooms from the general education students, she said.

 “As a result, when we came back, we did start an inclusion model. Grades K, 1, 2, and 3 no longer have substantially separate classrooms. Both students in special education and students in general education are learning together. There are two teachers in every classroom: a general education teacher and a special education teacher. Next year, we will be bringing it into grades 4 and 5,” Rush said. “I think the model will fill a lot of gaps,” she continued.

Early intervention for special education also changed due to the pandemic.

Part C of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act “is a federal grant program that assists states in operating a comprehensive statewide program of early intervention services for infants and toddlers with disabilities, ages birth through age two years, and their families,” according to the Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center.

Melissa Roller is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and the program director at the Pediatric Development Center in Pittsfield. The agency is independent and covers Pittsfield and all of central Berkshire County. The center only provides services for children from birth to three years old.

That age group serves as an “important window developmentally because so many big stages happen between a baby being born and turning three and going to school and being a toddler. We were challenged at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020 when we closed very quickly and could not do any in-person,” Roller said. She mentioned that adapting to an online platform was a significant change for the staff.

Roller added that attention spans are very short with young children, so they sometimes could not participate on Zoom.

“So, we focus on working with the parents so the parents can do the follow-through. Then we meet the next week again and see how things went,” Roller said. “We do a lot of parent support which is a big part of our role even in person, but it became more so when we did Zoom,” she continued. 

Roller gave an example of her struggle with virtual therapy.

“I’m a physical therapist, I like to be hands-on with the babies, that’s what I do so to show parents how to do stretching or how to help their babies roll over; however, on Zoom, I have to say ‘try to put your hands here or try to do this,’ so it is a learning experience for all of us, and I definitely got better at it. I always prefer to be able to be hands-on and in-person with the baby and the parents,” Roller said.

The pandemic affected the referral process for the Pediatric Development Center.

“During the height of things, just to give you an average, we usually probably get between 40-55 referrals a month. During the early six months of the pandemic, sometimes we would have 12,” Roller said. “We are back to full capacity for referrals. We have 280 children enrolled, which is our typical number from before the pandemic, and we evaluate probably close to a total of 550 kids a year.

“We took the pressure off of families if they weren’t interested. We said when we are back in person, we will let you know, and a lot of families took us up on that,” she said.

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