As schools let out for summer, there are undoubtedly aspects of the past year that teachers and parents alike are ready to leave behind.
But then there are the benefits that some are hoping stick around. Among them: better communication strategies and tools that make it easier for special education parents and teachers to interact.
Those are lessons that should stay in place long after our current era of remote learning, says research analyst Lanya McKittrick, who focuses on special education and families at the Center on Reinventing Public Education. She recently co-authored a report on how charter schools effectively supported students with disabilities during the pandemic and is blogging about the topic.
“If you don’t have good communication, that partnership really breaks down,” she says, referring specifically to parents and educators. “A lot of families are under a lot of stress, grieving or what have you, so what can we learn from that special ed community about communication and relationships and the importance of those during that time?”
McKittrick says families were left feeling like special education was an afterthought during much of the pandemic. They were empathetic toward schools in Spring 2020 as educators scrambled to make remote learning happen, she adds. But McKittrick’s analysis of school reopening plans for Fall 2020 revealed little mention of special education programs.
McKittrick’s disappointment didn’t just come from her role as a researcher. She’s also a mom to four children, three of whom are deafblind.
“I was expecting more communication from our IEP teams about what this specifically is going to mean for my kids,” she says, referencing the acronym for individualized education programs. “Do I get to go in person sooner than others because my kids have this need? What if they have a medical issue and can’t wear a mask? There just weren’t those answers.”
A May 2021 report from the American Foundation for the Blind examined the COVID-19 pandemic’s impacts on students with visual impairments. It likewise listed communication as an important component throughout its recommendations, concluding that “Communication between students, family members, vision professionals, other educators, and administrators must be ongoing, clear, and individualized to the needs of the student and family members.”
The schools that most successfully served their special education groups were those that prioritized communication and learning about families’ needs, McKittrick found in her own analysis. Particularly, she points to the ones that asked questions such as, Do you have access to technology? Are you caring for anybody who is ill? Do you have a safe place to work?
“That was a really positive thing in the spring. My own kid said, ‘This is really cool that my teachers are not like, ‘Did you get the assignment done?’ but ‘How are you today?’” she says. “Schools that took that time were great.”
Leveling the (Virtual) Playing Field
When parents traditionally head over to schools for meetings on students’ IEPs, which outline learning goals and support for their children, their experiences haven’t been altogether pleasant.
“Oftentimes there’s a power imbalance where everyone is on the opposite side of the table, and parents feel like they’re alone in this group of people,” McKittrick says. “Zoom removes that physical barrier. Everyone is sort of equal.”
Virtual IEP meetings solved meeting scheduling issues faced by working parents, and they even made it easier for students to get involved in their learning plans when their parents are logging into meetings from home.
“They may not want to come into a whole IEP meeting and sit there, for various reasons, in person,” she says. “It’s easy for students to pop in [to a virtual meeting], spend 20 minutes, and talk about how their year is going. If the adults want to keep talking, they can.”
Just a Text Away
Parents got immediate, first-hand experience with their children’s learning when classrooms moved from in-person school to virtual at home. And that proximity has added a whole new dynamic to the ways parents could interact with educators.
“What we’re seeing this year is there’s no barriers. We’re learning at home. One of the cool things about that is that parents are feeling more empowered,” McKittrick says.
That includes her. One example she set forth was, pre-pandemic, how to address an issue if her seventh grade son came home crying from school. McKittrick could call the teacher to try and figure out the issue, but “I didn’t see him in the classroom. When I saw him at home, I could be more active in that problem-solving.”
Communication between parents and teachers also changed dramatically and for the better as both groups became comfortable using messaging apps or texting with each other. With a tap of the “send” button and a ping on the other end, either side can start a conversation in seconds rather than days.
“Yesterday I was talking to a teacher who said, ‘Normally I would never text a parent in the middle of the day. I would see if something is a problem and ponder it and whether I really want to contact the parent. But now I’m just texting,’” McKittrick says. “Parents really like that because you don’t have to think, ‘That was three days ago. I don’t know what was going on with them.’”
Becoming Better Advocates
The sum of these new dynamics is that parents and students alike feel more empowered to advocate for their needs, McKittrick says. That’s good for kids.
“I think ultimately they’re seeing everybody part of the team are all on the same page, and so it’s more consistent for the child. They’re feeling better supported, and I think that’s helping them build self-advocacy and independence,” she says. “They feel comfortable saying something isn’t accessible to me, or I need a little more time on something.”
Because faster communication is getting parents involved more frequently and sooner, she finds that they are more engaged as well. One school in McKittrick’s research reported that parent-teacher conference attendance increased from 80 percent to 95 percent after meetings were moved online.
“I think parents don’t think their knowledge is valued, but they’re the ones who know the most about their child. For them to be able to see [classroom learning] for themselves, I’ve talked to so many parents who had an ah-ha moment,” McKittrick says. “No longer am I going to sit in an IEP meeting and take a backseat role because I’ve seen this first-hand.”
Schools should ensure that, as classrooms transition back to in-person, special education teachers have the time to keep lines of communication open with parents, McKittrick says. Parents also need options that will keep them engaged, such as continuing with virtual IEP meetings.
“How can we leverage some of the things that were working remotely so that we don’t just go back to, this is the way it was?” she says. “I think we learned a lot because we were communicating and problem-solving and individualizing and being more flexible in special education than maybe we were in the past.”