How to Serve Students With Special Needs From Afar
About 14 percent of all public school students receive special education services, and for many of them the switch to remote learning has been difficult on families and the schools that teach them every day. How are schools adjusting? What resources are they turning to? And what’s most important to focus on?
To that last question, Sean Arnold, a STEM coach and special educator for the New York City Department of Education, has a suggestion.
“Find some way, some moment to connect—especially with elementary students, but all your students really—because they’re challenged,” he says. “They see all this craziness going on around them. They don’t know what tomorrow holds. Why are things so strange? They just want to know at the end of the day that there are people to connect with.”
Arnold recently joined Luis Perez, a technical assistance specialist for the National Center on Accessible Education Materials, which is affiliated with the nonprofit CAST, on an interactive webinar, Understanding the Impact of Coronavirus on K-12 Education, hosted by EdSurge and ISTE, our parent organization. It is a recurring weekly series on Fridays 11 a.m. PT / 2 p.m. ET.
Listen to the audio below or check out the full video on YouTube. Below is a partial, condensed transcript below, which has been lightly edited for clarity.
What is Universal Design for Learning?
Luis Perez: Universal design for learning begins with the premise that all learners vary, and that the way that we address that variability is by designing a flexible curriculum that has lots of choice. We know that learners vary in how they engage, how they take in information and also how they’re able to show what they know.
So it’s not always a lecture. We’re using a variety of methods to provide access to the content and then also in how they’re able to express their understanding in a variety of ways. It could be a video, it could be a podcast, it could be a presentation.
Sean Arnold: I’ll say that in my context of being in New York City schools, Universal Design for Learning just looks like good teaching. It really is just providing options for your students, personalizing the learning for them. So instead of just writing an essay, which some of my students can’t do because they don’t have the tactical skills to hold a pencil, or maybe they struggle with language because they have autism or some other cognitive delay, they’re telling digital stories or they’re expressing themselves through simple three-act math movies.
The connection really is on a real-world level. The curb cuts that we know are for people in wheelchairs also help the guy taking his laundry to the laundromat. It also helps the woman with the stroller. Essentially, these are tools and options that are designed for one specific group, like a ramp to a door, but it helps everybody out.
Teachers are holding live classes and giving independent work these days. Let’s talk about those terms. What is synchronous versus asynchronous learning?
Perez: We’ll start with synchronous because that’s what we’re actually doing right now. We’re communicating in real time using a platform called Zoom. (And by the way, Zoom has support for captioning as well.)
Asynchronous means that it’s offline, so you can access it in your own time. That can be a website, a blog, a discussion board. It can be one of the oldest forms of digital communications we have: email. It can be texting as well..
What is most important to be focusing on right now?
Arnold: The one synchronous thing that I think teachers should do in whatever capacity they can in a given day or week is to find some way, some moment to connect, not just with elementary students but all your students really, because they’re challenged. They see all this craziness going on around them. They don’t know what tomorrow holds. Why are things so strange? They just want to know at the end of the day that there are people to connect with. And that’s something we actually have experienced in New York. Yes, this is a worldwide phenomenon that is new to everybody. But here in New York, we had Hurricane Sandy a few years back and schools got closed. Kids were at home, and we had to connect with them there.
I have educator friends in California who, in the midst of the wildfires, had kids still showing up to school. You got a class of 30 kids and 25 of them don’t have homes, don’t have possessions or anything anymore. And at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is what my friend said to me: that kids need to go home feeling that they were loved, they were cared for, that they had somebody in their corner. And as much as we need to be regularly doing that for each and every one of our students, the teachers need to be taking that time for themselves too.
How do you vet resources for special education and make sure that they’re appropriate for your needs?
I just did a blog post recently on this. There are three things that I look at right away and to determine the accessibility of a tool. No. 1 is: Can I select the text? Can I go in and draw a selection around the text like if I’m going to copy and paste it? Because if I can’t do that, then neither can assistive technology. If a learner needs text-to-speech or they’re using a screen reader, if that text is locked in any way, or if that text is presented as an image, then it’s not accessible.
No. 2 is keyboard accessibility. Generally when I’m looking at a website or any kind of online tool, I will just flip my mouse over, and then just press the tab key a few times. And I should be able to know as I press the tab key where I am in the interface in terms of the links and so on.
And the final one is if there is some video, I will play the video and randomly take a look at the captions, just to make sure that they have some grammar in them and are identifying the speakers and so on. Then I know that they’re not the automatic captions. Those are just three simple rules. It doesn’t mean that the tool is completely accessible, but it’s just the first check.
Arnold: There are particular tool add-ons like Clicker, which helps students who are barely verbal, as well as Immersive Reader, and Microsoft Teams, which has some really great stuff for multilingual learners and those struggling with language. They have visual prompts.
But even more than all of that, you can go beyond the text to digital storytelling. It could be something as simple as Adobe Spark or Book Creator Online. That last one is actually a really nice one to create digital books for your students with embedded pictures, symbols—they’re books that automatically read themselves to students if they’re not capable of it.
What should paraprofessionals, assistant teachers and other support staff work on these days?
Arnold: This has been the big question from so many people in the city. So there are teachers who are like, "Okay, I’m starting to find my way. I never really used computers with my kids before, but I guess I’m kind of figuring it out. We’re in Google Classroom now and I’m sending them things." Cool. But what’s the role of the speech teacher, or the occupational therapist or the paraprofessional?
HIPAA, the health privacy law, has relaxed their guidelines somewhat. You can go on the Health and Human Services website and find that these platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams and things have been allowed for teletherapy sessions. You don’t have to have the super highest end security platform. You are not breaking HIPAA guidelines when you’re doing this if you need video, live synchronous conferencing, to make your therapy happen. Soundtrap is an online audio recording platform for speech teachers where they can work with students, and have a chat on the side, either vocally or through text while they’re having them record and work on their speech issues.
I’ll say there’ve been success stories where the paraprofessional is far more technologically savvy than the classroom teacher, and so they’re managing the platforms while the teacher is managing content and information that they want to get out to the kids. We’ve had situations where the paraprofessionals are calling families on the phone, especially if they speak the home language of the student. We are seeing a lot more collaboration in the digital space, rather than kids getting pulled out for sessions. And I hope that when we go back to the physical space, a lot of that can continue.