Special education and online learning: What you need to know

Originally published to SmartBrief Education – August 25, 2020

We are all adjusting to a new normal amid the COVID-19 pandemic. With many brick-and-mortar schools still shuttered to stop the spread of the virus, education is largely going digital — and the online classroom represents a new way of learning for many students and families.

But in recent weeks, I’ve been disheartened to read stories that claim online education can’t work for students with special needs. It can, and it does. For the past year I have served as a special education teacher at the full-time, online California Virtual Academies. I see firsthand how the personalized experience of online school can accommodate students of varying backgrounds and abilities.

Here are three things I want everyone to know about special education and online learning.

Communication is Constant

Even though I am not face-to-face with my students in a physical classroom, I am constantly in contact with them and their families. Whether it is over email, phone calls, or video messaging, we regularly meet to review a student’s academic goals and progress.

If an issue comes up, I am always available to help. Whether an adjustment is needed to a student’s Individualized Education Program or a family wants to discuss best practices to navigate the online environment, there are so many ways we work together. 

That is something I want parents to know — they are not alone in this journey. As much as I help my students, I also find myself training the parents. Providing them with tips on how to navigate the remote learning experience, as well as how to acoomodate their child’s personalized learning needs, puts parents in a better position to help their student.

Most importantly, it also helps parents really get to know how their child learns. This in turn improves our goal setting because we can all closely monitor student progress.

The IEP Team is Still Here to Help

It’s important to remember that online public schools, like their brick-and-mortar counterparts, are required to provide IEPs under federal law. At CAVA, our IEP teams meet at least once during each school year to review and consider revisions to the education plan. These teams are there to work to support students on a case-by-case basis, identify their needs, celebrate their strengths, and work together to develop ways to best serve them. 

Their work can go a long way. For example, one of my current students has autism and motor impairments. At the beginning of the year, I noticed the student’s poor attendance and participation. 

After connecting this student’s parents with various related services provided by CAVA, including counseling and speech and language therapy, the student has experienced massive improvements. Now, this student actively participates in class. We are also meeting months in advance of the annual due date as an IEP team to review and revise earlier goals since the student has already surpassed our expectations.

Friendships can be Fostered Online

A concern I heard from parents when I taught in a brick-and-mortar environment is that they want their child to make friends. Without being face-to-face in a classroom some may think this is all but impossible. I am glad to say that’s simply not true.

In fact, I have seen many friendships form and flourish in my online classroom and extend beyond the live class sessions and breakout rooms. I’m always so happy when students are able to make real connections with one another. 

Recently, I taught a student with a speech impairment who, despite attending online classes, did not participate. I paired him with one of my more outgoing students who is the same age. This unlikely match delivered some amazing results. 

The same student who rarely talked now participates nonstop. And it is because he allowed himself to open up and feel comfortable with the friend he made in class.

I also have families reach out to me to see if they can connect with other families. So, not only can students then stay in touch beyond the classroom, their parents and learning coaches can form a sense of community with each other as well.

Every parent must choose the best education that fits their child’s needs. For some, online school may not be the right fit. However, I advise all parents of special education students not to fear online school.

As a teacher in an online learning environment, I want students and their families to know we are here to build up their strengths, rather than focus on their weaknesses. Every day, I strive to help them find their confidence and put them on a track to success. This is, indeed, possible in the online classroom. 

Lindsay Scacco has more than 12 years of experience in the classroom. She is currently a special education teacher at California Virtual Academies where she serves students statewide in transitional kindergarten through 2nd grade.

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