ISTE 2021: Special education experts advise keeping pandemic best practices

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This article was published on K12 Dive by Kara Arundel on July 2, 2021.

Dive Brief:

  • Schools faced significant struggles during remote and hybrid learning to continue educational and support services for students with disabilities, but there were also numerous pre-existing and newly created resources that helped schools meet students’ needs, a virtual panel during this week’s ISTE conference said.
  • Approaches such as universal design for learning, virtual individualized education program meetings and digital collaboration tools for students and teachers were some of the best practices promoted by networks of special education professionals, technical assistance agencies and advocacy groups during the pandemic.
  • As schools move back to more in-person instruction next school year, it’s helpful to know what pandemic-era strategies worked well and what resources best address barriers, as many of those practices can continue regardless of instructional format.

Dive Insight:

There was no doubt the pandemic caused challenges for students with disabilities and their teachers and related service providers, especially during the early months of the public health crisis, said the panelists, who represent various special education-related organizations. 

Some of the most common challenges included:

  • Inability of teachers to collaborate with each other.
  • Instruction that was not accessible for marginalized students.
  • Dropoffs in student engagement. 

“We know that student engagement, student motivation, has kind of been an evergreen challenge in teaching, but certainly the new educational contexts and settings students came across over the last year added a new speed bump to that,” said Lauren Krempecki, program manager at The Center for Learner Equity.

Krempecki said although there is not a magic formula for overcoming student engagement concerns, there are tools and resources that can help, such as Understood’s Step-by-Step Planner: UDL Lesson Design and Novak Education’s Bringing Your UDL Math Practice to the Next Level. These tools, Krempecki pointed out, are also useful in planning instruction for diverse populations of students.

Brooke Allen, founding director of the Diverse Learners Cooperative, said the pandemic offered teachers limited time to collaborate with colleagues and students. Virtual tools helped teachers become less siloed, and there is a new emphasis on the quality of collaboration, she said.

“One learning that we can take away from this year is that we must prioritize relationship building and collaboration among teachers, students and families,” said Allen, who highlighted the 5-15-45 tool from the TIES Center that helps teachers maximize their collaboration time, whether they have 5, 15 or 45 minutes.

She also spotlighted the Council for Exceptional Children’s High-Leverage Practices Leadership Guides for guidance on a variety of best practices for instructional technology, professional development and more.

When the pandemic first emerged in spring of 2020, panelist Eric Tucker, co-founder and executive director of the Brooklyn Lab Charter School in New York, said his school community struggled on how to continue teaching and learning. Educators and leaders at the school reached out to several organizations for recommendations and resources.

“[We] said we know enough about what we don’t know that we kind of need your help and support to understand how the fears and concerns we have around how to serve and how to meet the needs of young people can be met,” Tucker said.

A few months later, the school took that knowledge and developed its own Success Coaching Playbook to help guide its community and others in ways they can support students, staff and families through this time of hardship. 

Tucker said the next school year will also be demanding, and schools will need to continue high levels of attention and response. “I think as we prepare for this coming year, it’s important to acknowledge what our scholars need from us, what our families need from us, how challenging it will be for educators,” he said.

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