Best practices are constantly evolving for special education teachers. However in December 2019, nobody could have predicted what April 2020 would look like. Districts and educators had to flip their standard practices overnight to accommodate the current state of the nation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only did it bring significant challenges to students in general education, but it also brought many questions around how to ensure students with IEPs have equal access to education—not to mention the additional services these students receive.
While some districts have plans in place, others are continuing to develop methods for ensuring a free and appropriate remote learning education for the students they serve. In the midst of the current services in each district, many educators also have their eye on the future and how to take action now in order to optimize students’ learning outcomes in the fall of 2020. For most, the top priority is checking in with students to ensure they are healthy and safe.
Although indeed secondary to food and safety, it’s important to document all agreements and communication with staff members and families throughout this time. Having that information for next year’s teachers, especially if a student will be changing schools in the fall, impacts students’ long-term success. With a focus on documentation, anecdotal data can be referenced and utilized in future student plans.
The following practices can be helpful to drive communication plans with families, document agreements, and prepare for future data-driven decisions throughout the COVID-19 school closures.
Provide Clarity Around What Can and Cannot Be Done
It’s important for special and general education teachers to collaborate and ensure all students have access to instruction. Not only should collaboration between district staff members occur, but families should also be informed of what instruction looks like for all students and how instruction may differ for their student with an IEP. This is a confusing time for everyone, but it can be especially confusing to families who are not aware of what can and cannot be done to support their student with an IEP in terms of district-provided educational services. Remain factual with families regarding their rights as well as trends taking place nationally and locally. Inform them of expected next steps in the district and what can and cannot be done in relation to the current IEP. IEPs can be amended via virtual meetings; however, not all IEPs will need to be changed. Amendments should be done on a case-by-case basis with the full participation of family members.
- Stay up-to-date on recent news as it relates to education by participating in state and national webinars as well as by reading publications. The U.S. Department of Education and the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) frequently updates guidance on its website.
- Stay in constant communication with the special education department within your district so you are aware of district plans as they relate to students with IEPs.
Schedule Frequent, Virtual Check-Ins
Frequent check-ins with students and their families should be completed on a predictable schedule that is set up in advance so families know when they will occur. While the first discussion point of the check-in is to gauge the health and safety of the student, this time should be primarily reserved for discussing instruction for the student, how frequently the student is participating in instructional activities, and any new developments in the district along with how those developments impact the student and family. As the current school year winds down, this can also be a time where students meet new case managers (if applicable) as well as new teachers they will see next year.
- Invite families to be part of the schedule setup and planning so they feel part of the planning process.
- Invite families to join in creating the agenda for the regular check-ins.
- Offer the family a choice of meeting formats (e.g., phone, video-conference).
- Confirm the date and time of the next meeting at the end of each session.
Communication and Documentation
Communication and documentation are the best and most important steps to take during remote learning. When an educator receives information that can be shared with families, that information should be relayed in a timely manner.
Throughout all of this communication, it is important to document all understandings and agreements with families in writing. Remain open and honest with families. Inform families up-front that written documentation will be kept. Explain to families that the documentation will remain confidential, access to it will be visible to them, and access may be provided to others in the district who are privy to the information as allowed by the FERPA.
- Communication and documentation can be done during the scheduled check-ins. Share the information with families, and then mention the documentation being kept regarding the information and communication.
- Invite the families to have regular access to the documentation (view-only document settings can be used) so they can see and add to the information as needed.
- Save time by having one document that serves as the communication log and agenda for scheduled check-ins.
- Check with your special education department in the district to ensure the information you are sharing with families is accurate.
- Keep FERPA in mind as you share information with families and staff members.
Summary: Taking Proactive Steps Today
Today, educators can take action to provide clarity around current instruction and support capabilities and put communication and documentation in place. Work with families to create a regular and predictable check-in schedule, where a set agenda includes but is not limited to:
- Checking the health and safety of the student
- Reviewing current instruction taking place with the student
- Planning next steps
Develop a single, dated communication log that is shared with family. The communication log can be the check-in agenda with meeting notes so that all communication is documented in one location. Work with the district special education department to devise a plan to share up-to-date information as it relates to special education services and what can and cannot be done until on-campus instruction resumes. If possible, as this school year ends, schedule dates for any new special and general education teachers to be a “guest” at the check-in and share those dates with the families so they can prepare ahead of time.
Helpful Note: Does your district have eduCLIMBER? Create a smartFORM (including fields such as the student name, grade, school as well as fields for dates and text) for the purpose of this communication log. Attach the form to the student account. Then, this form can be viewed by current educators now and those educators who will be working with the student in the future.
- Search for the smartFORM template COVID-19 Student Contact Form in the climberCLOUD.
- Use the template as a base for this communication log and add any new fields as desired.
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