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Pandemic-Related Social and Communication Challenges: How Audiologists and SLPs Can Help With In-Person Learning

The COVID-19 pandemic presents unique social and communication circumstances, which affect students in a variety of ways. Many students benefited from remote instruction and telepractice. Some of the bright spots of virtual learning and more time at home included

  • increased family connections and communication;
  • more exposure to different languages in multilingual homes with the increased interaction time;
  • more chances to discover new and creative ways to interact socially (e.g., via virtual platforms, talking to neighbors outside from a distance);
  • more unique experiences to learn new vocabulary and conversational skills (e.g., talking about a variety of novel topics and emotions); and
  • increased opportunities for English language learners and multilingual speakers to communicate in heritage languages. See Educating English Learner Students During the Pandemic: Remote and In-Person Instruction and Assessment (August et al., 2021).

Although some students benefited, not all students thrived in a virtual environment. Some students lacked consistent access to the Internet or other technology needed for instruction or telepractice. Limited access to devices or insufficient broadband speed or capacity may have reduced the amount of time that a student was able to participate in remote classroom learning, audiology services, or speech-language pathology services via telepractice. Students may have experienced learning loss as a result of the pandemic; reports show that students experienced an average loss of 5 months in math and 4 months in reading. See COVID-19 and Education: The Lingering Effects of Unfinished Learning (Dorn et al., 2021) and The COVID-19 Slide: What Summer Learning Loss Can Tell Us About the Potential Impact of School Closures on Student Academic Achievement [PDF] (Kuhfeld & Tarasawa, 2020).

Other students experienced a plateau or made slower gains in social, communication, and academic skills. These students may need help to meet learning, social, and communication needs, especially at the start of the school year when they are transitioning to in-person school instruction and clinical service.

Families, teachers, school administrators, educational audiologists, and speech-language pathologists (SLPs) can work together to address the following critical issues to help students build social, communication, and academic skills:

Here are some responses to these questions based primarily on resources developed by the U.S. Department of Education for K–12 students:

How will we determine the extent of lost instructional time on skill development?

For students on their caseloads, educational audiologists and school-based SLPs will conduct screenings and comprehensive assessments, if needed, to assess a student’s current hearing levels and social and communication skills. Education teams may also identify new students as needing screenings and assessments.

Clinicians can use assessments to

  • determine current function and document gaps;
  • address whether the student had access to the technology needed for remote learning and telepractice;
  • assess the educational impact of the remote learning period;
  • consider how the pandemic-related circumstances influenced student needs; and
  • determine whether pre-pandemic goals need to be changed.

Clinicians can use assessment data for goal setting to

  • develop an intervention plan to build skills to pre-pandemic levels and beyond;
  • recommend accommodations (e.g., extra time) to augment services and help students recover social and communication skills;
  • determine needs for hearing technology, including needs resulting from disruption of regular maintenance and shortages of replacement parts; and
  • determine optimal service delivery models that may differ from pre-pandemic models.

Such a plan for assessment and goal setting is a positive early step to addressing student needs. As TNTP (2020) explains in the Learning Acceleration Guide, “Assume the best of your students, families, and staff in your decision making as you plan for reopening, and ensure that you have a strong plan to provide training and support for your teachers and school leaders” (p. 3).

What considerations are necessary to ensure equity in access to instruction, resources, and technology?

Audiologists and SLPs will need to address disparities in access to instruction and support services that occurred during the pandemic. Factors that may have contributed to a digital divide included

  • student demographics (e.g., age, race/ethnicity, gender);
  • location of a student’s home; and
  • family occupation and income.

In addition to a lack of equitable access, these circumstances may have affected a student’s level of engagement. Other factors that may have influenced engagement and access included

  • having an adequate space to work;
  • living with a number of people in the home who were trying to use wifi;
  • needing to take on extended responsibilities (e.g., caring for younger siblings if parent(s) had to work outside the home);
  • having fewer resources than students in more affluent communities;
  • having limited access to needed supports; and
  • persistent medical and mental health needs for those who had, or lost loved ones to, COVID-19.

It is critical that we (a) address the learning, social, and communication needs of all students and (b) provide additional supports and interventions to close an achievement gap and to make necessary referrals to address social, emotional, and mental health needs associated with the pandemic.

What are some considerations when working with English language learners?

The impact of the pandemic varied for different populations. Some English language learners may have experienced disruptions in learning and language barriers with online instruction. Families of English language learners also may have experienced more COVID-related illness and death than other population groups, with resulting trauma and other mental health issues affecting students’ return to school. Such differences may have been compounded by physical isolation, inconsistent access to broadband, or limited physical space in the home for everyone to access electronic devices for learning. With the return to in-person school, families will need continuing support (e.g., interpretation and translation) and explanations of the benefits of in-person clinical service.

Upon returning to in-person school, English language learners—particularly those with disabilities—will likely need multilingual support for accessing the school curriculum and school technology as required by federal disability law. Accessibility features may include

  • using websites and documents that are compatible with screen reader software;
  • providing captioning or embedded sign language interpreting for video content;
  • ensuring that parents understand and can contribute during individualized education program (IEP) meetings by having necessary services and materials available, such as offering the services of an interpreter or providing published materials in enlarged print; and
  • determining, during IEP meetings, whether the student needs assistive technology or other support services so that they may receive a free appropriate public education (FAPE).

For more information, see the CCSSO English Learners With Disabilities Guide (CCSSO, 2017) [PDF].

What interventions will be effective for transitioning back to in-person instruction?

To make a smooth transition from online instruction at home to in-person instruction at school, students will need to reacclimate to a structured educational setting. Similar to what they see after students return from long breaks, teachers and clinicians may notice that students need to relearn routines in instructional and clinical settings.

Here are some actions that educational audiologists and SLPs may take to ensure that students have needed resources and interventions:

  • Make sure that students have adequately functioning hearing aids and/or appropriate assistive listening devices in the classroom.
  • Work with IEP teams to select individualized learning activities based on assessment data to address lost instructional time and loss of social and communication skills.
  • Determine whether previous supplementary aids and services are still appropriate (e.g., to help with self-regulation).
  • Continue to implement evidence-based, culturally responsive interventions tailored to a student’s social, communication, and academic needs.
  • Provide extensive opportunities to practice social and communication skills that were disrupted during the pandemic.
  • Re-teach skills that were more limited at home (e.g., having in-person conversations with peers) to help students socially interact with peers, teachers, and clinicians in a face-to-face setting.

Instructional approaches, services, and accommodations may include the following recommendations (U.S. Department of Education, 2021c):

  • Use extended schedules.
  • Offer enrichment programs during school breaks.
  • Provide more after-school activities.
  • Collaborate with teachers and counselors to provide explicit instruction in communication, social, emotional, and cognitive skills.
  • Encourage peer interactions, conflict resolution, problem solving, and decision making in the classroom.
  • Increase the amount of instructional and clinical time, when needed.
  • Communicate about values such as compassion, empathy, and connection to help with the transition back to in-person learning.

For more information, see Volume 2, ED COVID-19 Handbook: Roadmap to Reopening Safely and Meeting All Students’ Needs [PDF] (U.S. Department of Education, 2021c).

Some students may need reassurance in order to feel safe when they are physically close to other students—especially in the future, when medical experts will begin advising that masks are no longer needed to prevent infection. Teachers and clinicians can help students build self-advocacy skills so that they can ask for what they need to feel safe and to make progress in learning.

How can we measure progress?

It is not sufficient to have a goal of recouping lost skills. Students need to have grade-level learning objectives as well as social and communication skills that are commensurate with developmental expectations. Otherwise, students—particularly those who previously were underserved even before the pandemic began—will continue to fall behind.

Education teams need to engage in regularly occurring conversations to assess and monitor student progress. Using formal and informal progress evaluations, teachers and clinicians can

  • collect daily documentation about progress;
  • measure a student’s progress according to baseline performance and grade-level or other school expectations;
  • consider the expected developmental trajectory for targeted social and communication skills;
  • be alert to any red flags such as disruptive behaviors, low attendance, and lack of focus or engagement;
  • determine what prompting cues and accommodations need to be modified;
  • reach out to parents to check progress status and get a sense of any changes in home life; and
  • make necessary referrals to help students cope with loss and navigate feelings of grief.

Clinicians can collect data on eligibility determinations, benchmarks, previous reports, classroom observations, supporting documentation, and work products as part of a frequent progress-monitoring process.

Additional Considerations

Some of the strategies described above are tasks typically addressed by IEP teams, and others are unique to the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, teams can address lessons learned from the pandemic and ways to move forward to resume in-person learning and minimize disparities. Some practices may include

  • using culturally relevant materials,
  • strengthening relationships and contact with families,
  • strengthening social and emotional learning, and
  • recognizing that student behavior may have a new set of norms that may be different and/or more complex than pre-pandemic norms.

The following two resources have some helpful suggestions for IEP teams on addressing socio-emotional development and mitigating the impact of accessibility issues:

Resources

This section provides a list of materials cited and consulted within this document.

August, D., Carlson, C., Cieslak, M. Y., & Nieser, K. M. (2021, February 23). Educating English learner students during the pandemic: Remote and in-person instruction and assessment [Policy brief]. Center for the Success of English Learners (CSEL). https://www.cselcenter.org/post/remote-learning-assessment-els-report

Child Health and Development Institute. (2021, February 10). Issue Brief 80: Improving student and staff well-being during COVID-19 and beyond: Connecting social emotional learning with anti-racism and equity. https://www.chdi.org/index.php/publications/issue-briefs/improving-student-and-staff-well-being-during-covid-19-and-beyond-connecting-social-emotional-learning-anti-racism-and-equity

Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). (2017, November). CCSSO English learners with disabilities guide: A guide for states creating policies on the identification of and service provision for English learners with disabilities. https://oese.ed.gov/files/2020/10/ccsso_elswd_guide_final_11_11_2017.pdf [PDF]

Dorn, E., Hancock, B., Sarakatsannis, J., & Viruleg, E. (2021, July 27). COVID-19 and education: The lingering effects of unfinished learning. McKinsey & Company Public & Social Sector Insights. https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/public-and-social-sector/our-insights/covid-19-and-education-the-lingering-effects-of-unfinished-learning

Kuhfeld, M., & Tarasawa, B. (2020, April). The COVID-19 slide: What summer learning loss can tell us about the potential impact of school closures on student academic achievement [Collaborative brief]. NWEA. https://www.nwea.org/content/uploads/2020/05/Collaborative-Brief_Covid19-Slide-APR20

TNTP. (2020, April). Learning acceleration guide: Planning for acceleration in the 2020–2021 school year. https://tntp.org/assets/set-resources/TNTP_Learning_Acceleration_Guide_Final.pdf [PDF]

U.S. Department of Education. (2021a, June). Education in a pandemic: The disparate impacts of COVID-19 on America’s students. https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/20210608-impacts-of-covid19.pdf [PDF]

U.S. Department of Education. (2021b, February). Volume 1, ED COVID-19 handbook: Strategies for safely reopening elementary and secondary schools. https://www2.ed.gov/documents/coronavirus/reopening.pdf [PDF]

U.S. Department of Education. (2021c, April). Volume 2, ED COVID-19 Handbook: Roadmap to reopening safely and meeting all students’ needs. https://www2.ed.gov/documents/coronavirus/reopening-2.pdf [PDF]

U.S Department of Education. (2021d, June). Volume 3, ED COVID-19 Handbook: Strategies for safe operation and addressing the impact of COVID-19 on higher education students, faculty, and staff. https://www2.ed.gov/documents/coronavirus/reopening-3.pdf [PDF]

U.S. Department of Education. (2021e). Return to school roadmap: A guide for K–12 schools and communities for the 2021–2022 school year. https://sites.ed.gov/roadmap/

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