The abrupt transition to remote learning caused by COVID-19 offers a marked challenge for teachers and paraprofessionals who support students with disabilities. The educators we work with are stepping up to the plate. CollegeSpring Instructional Coach Yvonne Tran describes teachers’ “overwhelming compassion and kindness” during the controlled chaos that comes with teaching in the time of COVID-19. People who might never have used Zoom in their life are now offering occupational and speech therapy on the platform, and some are making home visits to help students log onto and use their electronic devices.
CollegeSpring believes that we must work together with our partners to support all students during this time. We also believe that we can use what we learn now to improve the way we support students with disabilities in the future.
Accessibility must be a core component of any remote curriculum. Special education, despite its name, is mainstream: 14% of all students in public schools receive special education services to accommodate diagnosed disabilities. “Disability” is an umbrella term for a wide variety of impairments, abilities, and chronic illnesses. We believe that offering individualized support to students with disabilities is the right thing to do. Our school partners share this value, in addition to their legal duty to accommodate these students.
The lack of a one-size-fits-all solution only magnifies the task before us. Each student receiving special education has a federally mandated Individualized Education Program (IEP) designed to provide the supports they need, but many receive in-person accommodations that don’t always translate easily to a remote learning environment. Students who have disabilities and come from low-income backgrounds may face additional challenges accessing accommodations. Common hurdles include inequitable internet connectivity across the digital divide, uneven access to electronic devices, lack of low-distraction or otherwise suitable learning environments at home, and difficulty staying engaged with an electronic device.
CollegeSpring’s Instructional Coaches are taking a multi-pronged approach to supporting our teachers as they work to make learning accessible for everyone. First and foremost, Instructional Coaches are responding to individual teachers’ needs to offer accommodations as they arise, since every students’ needs are unique.
Our Instructional Coaches are also providing generalized remote services geared toward the population of students with disabilities. They continue to meet with teachers using video conference platforms, and they are building an online hub of resources to help teachers adapt material for students with different needs and backgrounds. They are likewise offering their expertise with technology-enabled accommodations. Instructional Coaches are guiding teachers through what is, for some, a brave new world of virtually accessible learning.
The transition has been eased by the fact that CollegeSpring’s program was well suited to remote learning even before the COVID-19 outbreak. Our entire curriculum is accessible online, from the tests themselves to resources for instructors. This makes it easy to offer common test-taking accommodations like extended time limits, and some of our school partners are already taking advantage of that.
Some forms of accessibility are actually enabled by technology-assisted learning. For instance, Google classroom offers text-to-speech and speech-to-text features that can assist students with visual or auditory impairments. Teachers can also upload narration to slideshow presentations, allowing students to access course content as both readers and listeners.
None of this is to say that there haven’t been bumps in the road, or that there won’t be more. Instructional Coaches are still learning together with the teachers they support. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” says Instructional Coach Liberty Matias. Moving entire school systems online has also been a sprint, of course, but CollegeSpring staff members say that they are finding new ways both to support teachers now and to make our program more accessible in the future.