As the 2019-2020 school year winds down and remote-learning set to wind down, Montgomery County’s school districts deserve a standing ovation.
In addition to very-quickly creating and implementing remote learning plans for children in preschool through twelfth grade, special education teachers, related service providers and administrators have been working tirelessly within the unprecedented situation to provide special education services remotely for the numerous children with IEP’s (Individualized Education Program) within the counties school districts.
An IEP is a written statement of the educational program designed to meet a child’s individual needs, developed by a team of that includes key school staff and the child’s parents. Students can be issued an IEP for a myriad of reasons such as intellectual disabilities, speech and language impairments, vision and hearing impairments, emotional disabilities, health impairments, developmental delays, traumatic brain injuries and autism. Throughout the school year, and extending into special summer classes, the county’s school districts are responsible for providing a variety of services for these students, such as physical, occupational, speech and language therapies and social work.
Within the Hillsboro school district alone, there are 282 students (preschool through 12th grade) that receive services through the school district, each with individualized learning plans and goals tailored to their specific needs. This created a bit of a challenge for the districts who found themselves needing to create amended versions of the general remote learning plans, tailored to each of these students’ specific needs.
“We have been working under the guidance of the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) to develop special remote learning plans for students,” said Brandy Buske, special education coordinator for Hillsboro School District. “These plans are different than IEP’s. The remote learning plan is an agreement between the teachers and the parents about which goals are most important for the individual student to work on while services are being implemented remotely, within homes.”
Buske, clarified that legally each student’s IEP remains in place and will be implemented as soon as school is back in session. However, the remote learning plans dissect the individual IEP’s, picking three to five goals which are selected collectively by the parents, teachers and students when applicable. The specialized plans break down the selected goals, with a suggested time frame of how often parents should be implementing these services remotely. Learning packets and resources tailored to these specific goals are being periodically sent to families and the districts’ teachers and service providers are checking in with parents weekly and making themselves available during normal school hours to provide guidance and even reassurance when needed.
“Providing services remotely is not something we ever expected to have to do. It definitely creates some obstacles. When I am in the classroom I can sit down and observe my kids in a group with their peers and now that piece is missing,” said special education teacher, Carli Keown. “It is harder to assess where they are at, but we are all (teachers, service providers and parents) doing what we can to make it work.”
Keown, works with preschoolers in the Hillsboro School District and while she works with all the students, spending one day in each of the district’s four early education classrooms, she has 20 special needs students on her case load and is responsible for overseeing their IEP goals and monitoring their progress.
Normally, Keown is in a different classroom each day of the week and gears the activities she plans for the overall classroom with her individual students’ IEP goals in mind. Keown says she has been taking a similar approach when working with preschool teachers to create remote learning plans, thinking about what kind of things the kids on her case-load are working on. She has also been providing additional resources and modifying plans for individual students as requested by their parents.
“Our intent is not to overwhelm but to help provide support and structure for students in the home,” said Buske. “The biggest thing we are working on is making sure our students and teachers can maintain the connections and relationships they had built, throughout this unexpected remote learning period.”
Amy Jones a certified occupational therapy assistant (COTA) contracted to provide occupational therapy services in the Hillsboro School District through Therakids, P.C., knows firsthand how overwhelmed parents are feeling as the county moves into the final weeks of remote learning. Jones, herself has four children at home, ranging in ages 14 through one years old, three with their own remote learning plans to manage on top of keeping up with the students on her case load.
“I have had some parents who have been overwhelmed. I think the initial packets we sent out caused some panic because there were so many pages included but we did not know what to expect, everything changed so fast, it changed in a day.”
Jones urges parents that feel overwhelmed to step back from trying to emulate a structured school environment with kids sitting doing their school work for hours at time and to find ways to implement activities into daily routines.
She reminds parents that they can (generally) find ways to work on IEP goals in almost anything they do, even simple things like coloring, playing games, making play-dough, cutting simple lines, getting outside to play in dirt or water or jumping on a trampoline will implement many of the goals students are working on.
“I don’t want people scheduling tons of time to do occupational therapy work. These students are already doing school work for their general (classroom) remote learning plans, implement the special service skills as you do other things throughout the day. You are probably already doing stuff and don’t even know. Working on these therapy skills doesn’t have to be complex or crazy, there are simple things you can do around the house to help.”
In the classroom, Jones often uses play to implement the skills she is working on with the students assigned to her. She finds that making the activities fun is a key component in getting students to work and often uses preferred items to ease students into doing a non-preferred activity
Jones has joined fellow service providers and educators in utilizing technology to connect with students and provide resources for parents. She has even made several video tutorials including one on how to use things around your house as therapy tools.
Another form of services school districts provide are transitional services for
high school students between 14 and 21 years of age. Transition plans are designed to help students make the often tumultuous transition from school to adulthood and cover domains of independent living like community involvement, employment, accessing adult services and resources, daily living skill and post secondary education.
“Our special education teachers and transition specialists are holding zoom meetings to set up links within the community, county and state, so that when our students graduate, they and their families, will have the resources they need,” said Buske. “One thing they are working on with students is how to communicate with their employers during the COVID-19 crisis, what precautions they may need to take during this time and things like that.”
The districts have relied heavily on technology to stay connected with parents and students throughout the remote learning period. The spring semester is generally the time period that districts set up student’s federally mandated IEP meetings for the following year, creating a bit of an issue as social distancing orders were made by the Governor mid-March. A pressing issue, the IEP teams set up virtual meetings with the families to ensure meetings were being held in a timely fashion.
“Everyone, at all levels, has been working around the clock since the remote-learning plans were implemented. This is new for all of us and it’s inspiring to see all of the creative ways everyone, in all positions, are coming together to support our students,”said Buske. “Everyone has been beyond helpful and willing to jump-in and it certainly takes everyone in the district to make this work.”