Commentary

Parents, Teachers Must Collaborate to Help Special-Needs Learners

Distance learning brings both challenges and opportunities

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s April 2 executive order to close down public school buildings for the rest of the academic year has set in motion a new education norm. The move to use distance learning in no way represents a popular preference that would be pursued under normal circumstances. Among the foremost concerns are how to help students with disabilities. Widely available digital tools, used in a partnership between schools and parents, offer the most likely path forward.

The governor’s order urges districts and public charter schools to move forward with formalized plans to complete the academic term using “alternative modes of instruction.” The situation is certainly not ideal. Not all students thrive in the same setting, after all, including distance learning. Taking in-person instruction off the table, even because of a legitimate public health concern, presents Michigan families and educators with an “unprecedented challenge,” as MLive described it.

As the governor acknowledges in the order, local districts will need to provide some students with compensatory special education services once in-person instruction again becomes available. These services will make up for schools being unable, during the shutdown, to provide students what their individualized education plans call for. Whitmer’s order also recognizes the March 21 guidance from the U.S. Department of Education that the challenges of complying with federal special education law in the meantime “should not prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction.”

As Robin Lake from the Center on Reinventing Public Education correctly noted shortly after the coronavirus pandemic took hold, inequities will no doubt occur when online learning programs are rolled out on a large scale. But doing nothing all but guarantees that students most at risk, including those with disabilities, will lose out.

Some Michigan districts, like Oxford, quickly adapted their delivery of special education services when their facilities were first closed down. The learning curve for many others, though, is higher. Special education teachers with experience in cyber schools or other virtual programs can be called on to help. Yet even as teachers get up to speed on online tools and strategies, technical challenges will remain, and individual student needs will vary.

One important step districts should take as they move to use distance learning is simply to ask families. Web-based surveys or phone conversations can let educators learn what sort of capacity parents or other caregivers have to help, and how the home’s technology and environment might enhance or impede learning. School officials can then deploy video conferencing to deliver key services and host meetings needed to review and update individualized education plans.

Districts that have already established strong communication and trust with parents will have an advantage in making the adjustment. Parents in these districts are more likely to show patience as their schools navigate the transition.

Traci Lambert, a Traverse City mother of a 14-year-old daughter with Down syndrome, wants the voices of those like hers heard, to help ensure educational approaches are guided by best research. It’s also important, she says, to have high expectations for students and to involve parents. Speaking of school officials, she says, “Their first thought should be how to include parents in the process, and that means listening carefully to them and respecting their input.”

Last spring she reluctantly pulled Katie out of school after years of frustration with school and state officials. She started twice-weekly sessions with a private tutor in October. Katie, her mom reports, has improved her ability to read and write independently these past six months, far outpacing her progress in her prior schooling experience. The progress has continued even as her tutor relocated to Missouri but continued the regular sessions online.

“We got a jump on everyone when it comes to switching to distance learning,” her mom said. “And Katie has hardly missed a beat.”

Educators should ask what they can learn from this uniquely challenging season to better address individual learning needs. After the crisis passes, this may entail a discussion about reforming federal special education law, which plays a major role in shaping how services are provided.

But states cannot be left off the hook. There is also plenty of room for Michigan to improve its track record with special education. In any such effort, educators and policymakers need to carefully heed the voices of parents.