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Stories and information in our region on the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 Could Change Special Education

Nam Y. Huh

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced school districts to use virtual teaching methods. And, special education providers have had to change how they administer therapies. Some specialists say that some of those changes may stay in place after the pandemic is over.

Sarah Gregory, a speech language pathologist in the Ithaca City School District, is one of those specialists. She and an elementary teacher recently found a way for some non-verbal students to participate in a class discussion by sharing what they know through an online form.

Many of the children she works with use special devices or tablet computers to communicate.

“Typically, if we’re in a class, we could just look over and see what a student wrote,” Gregory explained. “We tried to be flexible with our thinking and made Google forms that have picture supports that match the student’s device.”

Federal and state laws require that special needs students get the equivalent services they received before schools closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gregory said teachers and specialists in the Ithaca City School District constantly meet virtually to discuss student needs and try to solve problems as them come up.

She admitted that there aren’t exact work-arounds for everything kids need. For instance, no one is getting hands-on treatment by a trained physical or occupational therapist.

Some children with physical disabilities also have health conditions that make them at high risk of complications if they contract COVID-19.

Still, Gregory is optimistic.

“I think we’re going to be gaining tools right now through the end of this school year, however long the closure lasts, that are going to make us better able to do that distance learning for kids in the fall,” she said. “Or even in the future, that happens time to time, where students because of medical reasons aren’t able to be in school.”

Even after the closure is over, Gregory said many students with special needs still won’t be in the classroom. She expects to need more distance learning techniques in the fall and beyond.

Ron Hager, with the National Disability Rights Network, said the current crisis is an opportunity for school districts to improve how they educate children with special needs not a reason for them to cut back services.

In New York, there are over 400,000 students with special needs in public schools.

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