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Distance learning can and does work for special education students and their families | COMMENTARY

Students watch videos created by their teacher during the first day of distance learning.
Students watch videos created by their teacher during the first day of distance learning. (Courtesy Photo)

As health care and education professionals who have devoted our careers to working with children with neurological differences, we’d like to shine a bright light on successes that are happening with children and families every day.

Much has been written recently about the challenges facing educators, schools and states as they work to ensure that each student they serve receives meaningful education while sheltering at home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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One in every six children has a neurological condition that impacts the way they learn. Some have debated whether the educational needs of children who receive special education services can be addressed successfully outside of the classroom. Our answer to this question is a resounding yes!

Through a combination of technology, expertise, ingenuity, collaboration and determination, it is indeed possible to provide meaningful education curricula to those students with special education needs.

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Kennedy Krieger School Programs have been providing special education to children and young adults for decades. And, because our school programs are embedded within Kennedy Krieger Institute, we have access to many medical and clinical specialists who deliver comprehensive services, whether in school or, now, largely via teleeducation and telehealth. However, despite the uniqueness of Kennedy Krieger, much of our approach can be replicated by educators and school districts everywhere.

Here are specifics that may help others:

As directed by the Maryland State Department of Education, we designed “universal” continuity of learning plans to provide Free Appropriate Public Education, to the maximum extent possible to our students in the new learning environment.

We relied on tenets of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and best practices to develop individualized learning plans, including a multidisciplinary approach to reviewing and identifying goals and objectives appropriate for distance learning systems. We collaborated with families and local school systems to develop these plans.

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We surveyed our families to learn their distance learning technology needs and then applied for grants and repurposed technology, loaning equipment to temporarily connect families. We leveraged the experience of Kennedy Krieger clinicians, who several years ago pioneered telehealth services for deployed military families, to deliver IEP-related services (i.e., speech-language, occupational therapy, counseling, physical therapy) needed to implement the individualized learning plans.

Where appropriate, we’ve vetted and tapped into syndicated materials and supports to give families resources to augment the online instruction.

In addition to commercially available resources and local school system resources, our teachers develop weekly custom lessons, both recorded and interactive, made available to students and parents through their online classrooms. When COVID-19 restrictions occurred, we quickly and regularly communicated with students and families through the school portal, emails, phone calls and even video town hall meetings for parents. Our school programs’ leaders set regular video conference meetings with educators, and each other, to ensure open collaboration, communication and problem solving.

As one parent of a student who is receiving special education while at home told us, “I am absolutely blown away by what my son can do! He was so thrilled to see his teacher on the computer the first day of classes. The materials the school has provided have been completely tailored to my son’s plan and he still gets the speech and occupational therapies he was receiving, only now he gets them by telehealth video session. This crisis is terrible, but I am so grateful for everyone’s efforts to ensure that my son’s needs are met and he continues to have a positive learning experience.”

We encourage special educators and school officials everywhere to collaborate without regard for geographical boundaries. We are fortunate to have the opportunity to impact children’s lives in profound ways. The students demonstrate flexibility and grit every day to overcome their challenges. They are truly our North Star. We take our inspiration from them to find creative solutions to their education during these unprecedented times.

Dr. Bradley L. Schlaggar (Schlaggar@kennedykrieger.org), a pediatric neurologist, is president and CEO at Kennedy Krieger Institute. Nancy S. Grasmick (grasmick@kennedykrieger.org), the former superintendent of the Maryland State Department of Education, is chair of the board of directors at Kennedy Krieger Institute.

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