As parents are learning to adapt to the challenges of homeschooling their children, several student transportation industry experts shared advice on how to utilize nontraditional educational environments to create safe and comfortable learning experiences for their children, especially those who have disabilities.
Linda Bluth, a consultant to the Maryland State Department of Education Division of Early Intervention Services/Special Education and a former president of the National Association for Pupil Transportation, said there are many approaches that parents can utilize when homeschooling their children.
“Really, the biggest question is what does it mean for the education of all students and how to do students with disabilities fit into this?” Bluth relayed.
According to results from a STN readership survey, 82 percent of respondents as of this writing said they are providing an eLearning program for students in response to school closures. Of those responses, 69 percent are providing eLearning to students with disabilities. [Editor’s Note: 2 percent of respondents said they were not offering eLearning to students with disabilities, and 29 percent said they don’t know if they are or not.]
Some districts, according to the survey, are unsure of what school closures mean for students with disabilities, and in many instances, specialized schools are closed as well.
For instance, Oregon City School District, located outside of Portland, was transporting one medically fragile student to a mental health facility last month. However, Transportation Supervisor Teresa Brinsfield said the service ceased when the parent no longer wanted to send their student due to the safety concerns surrounding the student’s health issues.
Kathy O’Brien, the district’s assistant supervisor of transportation, added that the student was being transported in a Type-A special needs bus. She said she believes the child’s program is still operating, despite the family and others deciding to keep their children at home, in compliance with Gov. Kate Brown’s shelter-in-place order.
Intermediate District 287 in Minnesota, which serves students with a variety of unique needs, was preparing to continue to provide transportation to related services for students as required by their IEP. However, due to the safety concerns, many of the services have now moved to an online format, and the district has switched its focus to communicating with families on how to provide structure in the home environment.
“What does a schedule look like? What are the expectations for when they should be [online] and ready to engage with their teacher? What times of day does that look like? How many times of day should they anticipate contact from a teacher or social worker or somebody else from school?” asked Ben Magras, the district’s executive director of student outcomes. “So, a lot of our communications have centered around helping families create those routines, structures and schedules, so students have some stability about what their day is going to look like.”
Magras added that the essential role of school district officials is currently to help families set up those expectations at home and provide support along the way. He advised that all school districts perform regular check-ins with students and their parents to gauge how they are doing.
“I think we are going to find that both for our district and districts around the country, we are going to find some things that work really well, and we are going to find some things that we need to continue to adjust as we move forward,” Magras explained. “This is a new learning for lots of us, and we will make improvements as we go. But one of our central roles is to help provide that structure at home, and the guidance for our families, because it is so important for our students to make sense of the world around them.”
What Educating From Home Looks Like
As a previous special needs educator herself, Bluth said she would use the resources available to her at home to educate children remotely. By using television programs like those aired by the National Geographic Channel, students can engage in different learning opportunities than simply what is provided to them in the confines of the traditional classroom, she explained.
She pointed out that since students normally attend different classrooms throughout the normal school day, parents can mimic this by scheduling different study sessions to take place in different rooms at home. Another option is for students to write their spelling words with different colors of chalk outside on the sidewalk, then circle all the vowels. They could also try to identify different words within words, she suggested.
Bluth said the educational means and priorities could differ, but the structure and principles taught in school should remain the same. And for students experiencing poverty, academics could take a back seat to providing their next meal.
School districts have realized this barrier to nutrition when schools closed, and many districts have continued to provide meals to students, via the yellow school bus.
Bluth said educational opportunities are not the same for every child. Instead, they depend on the resources available. For example, many students may not have a computer at home, or there is only one computer to share between two or more children, as well as their parent who also has to work remotely.
She noted that even the difference in the home environment, whether it be in an urban, suburban or rural area, could affect students. School district personnel needs to be aware of that the different challenges that these communities might have.
She added that it’s important to listen to the people who are the most knowledgeable and have the best information to share about the crisis, based on data and facts rather than conjecture. For example, Bluth relayed that different states are offering various guidance on how to home school children. Her advice to parents is to research those credible state government and education advocacy websites. She also suggested that parents what they learned at the same age their children are now and to attempt to replicate the experience.
One of the online resources Bluth recommended is the U.S. Department of Education (DOE).
While the education of students with special needs while at home is uncharted territory, the DOE is continuously publishing information on how to address the challenges of this national emergency and how parents and educators and provide a sense of normality to their students, the agency stated in a supplemental fact sheet.
As of March 21, the DOE stated that ensuring compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) “should not prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance learning.”
The DOE also advised that school districts should continue to provide free and appropriate public education (FAPE), even though schools are closed. But the health and safety of students with disabilities should still be taken into consideration, and the offering of educational and related services and supports will be flexible during this time.
The DOE continues to state that schools might not be able to provide in-person services as required by students IEP, due to safety concerns, however the services may be modified and provided online.
“Many disability-related modifications and services may be effectively provided online,” the DOE guidance said. “These may include, for instance, extensions of time for assignments, videos with accurate captioning or embedded sign language interpreting, accessible reading materials, and many speech or language services through video conferencing.”
Patrick Mulick, an educational consultant and the assistant director of autism and student independence at Auburn School District #408 in Washington state, said as of last month, his district was awaiting state guidelines for what school closures mean for students with disabilities and what support the district can off.
However, Mulick, who is also a certified child behavior analyst, said districts should be communicating with families and encouraging them to tell their children that the current eLearning environment is only temporary. Mulick added that parents should share information with the students about what is going on.
“Not letting kids swim in the ambiguity of not knowing what is going on, and being able to share with them, at least a little bit of information that we know,” Mulick said. “We are not going to school because we are trying to stop the spread of this illness, we need to do our best to stay away from others, wash our hands, and keep our hands off our face. And know that, if we do this well, we are all going to be able to get back to school and see our friends.”
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Because unpredictability is so high right now, a main function of school districts is providing families with information on how to create a routine and expectations.
Industry consultant Alexandra Robinson noted that parents shouldn’t get discouraged or feel guilty if they are feeling overwhelmed about homeschooling.
She said the process starts with a daily educational schedule that parent set for their children. Otherwise, every day could feel like a weekend.
“[Parents] are not teachers. They are caregivers because this is their child,” Robinson explained. “So, the parent needs to make sure they have all the help that they need, and enlist help, even if it’s from a distance, I think that is the most important thing.”
She said simple, everyday activities around the house could be turned into learning exercises. For example, students with mild cognitive issues could benefit from watching their favorite television show or playing a game, as long as parents make sure to turn the experience into a lesson.
Robinson added that children with medical issues who need occupational therapy or physical therapy require constant movement. She pointed out they might need to be repositioned in their chair a couple times throughout the day.
Another idea Robinson shared is setting up an online chat group for neighborhood children with the same interests. She said it would be beneficial to children who struggle with making friends, because now they could talk about things they have in common or the books they are read in a safer setting.
Among all, industry experts said they believe routine, schedule and structure are paramount to successful home learning.