During this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ASHA School Services Team has been receiving many questions from school-based SLPs. School buildings may be closed, but the work of educating our young people continues. Although every state is different (see ASHA’s State-by-State resource, links to guidance from the U.S. Department of Education, and Considerations Regarding COVID-19 for Schools and Students with Disabilities), the information below is from various state leaders who answered this question:
Kathy Hoffman, MS, CCC-SLP, Superintendent of Public Instruction for the Arizona Department of Education, reported that SLPs have been going above and beyond to meet student needs. Many SLPs have shifted to telepractice. For students who are not able to participate in telepractice, SLPs are making hard-copy packets of materials for families to use. Hoffman reports, “A silver lining in all of this is that SLPs are feeling more connected to families. And families report feeling more empowered with the SLP walking them through the implementation of speech-language strategies at home. We’re forming stronger relationships!” Hoffman mentioned some common challenges such as accessing materials (e.g., printers and ink are in high demand and hard to come by) and Internet connectivity for the students and the SLPs. She also referenced the lack of electricity in some parts of the Navajo Nation, which has been especially hard hit by COVID-19. One Arizona school district that covers 1,800 square miles—including some of the Navajo Nation—has been providing meal deliveries, accompanied by educational learning packets, to make sure that students’ minds and bodies are fed. Hoffman stressed the importance of prioritizing the health and well-being of students and educators during this challenging time. She encouraged SLPs to set reasonable expectations, day by day, and to be kind to themselves. Arizona SLPs can find more information on the webpage of the Arizona Department of Education, Exceptional Student Services.
Tami Cassel, MA, CCC-SLP, is a supervisor and speech-language pathology specialist with the Colorado Department of Education’s Exceptional Student Services. Cassel reports that SLPs in Colorado are working closely with their directors of special education and providing free appropriate public education (FAPE) in consideration of families and their access to technology as well as to the Internet. Remote instruction is required to be accessible to students with disabilities; therefore, the Colorado Department of Education is not weighing in on a specific platform. Local education agencies (LEA) are deciding services based on the needs of students and their families. Services range from providing learning packets to offering asynchronous or synchronous instruction—in alignment with student goals—as well as providing access to general education. Cassel emphasized the importance of working with families to tailor remote learning to meet the needs of their child. She noted, “Some families are just not in a place to be able to access services at this time. Colorado mountain towns have difficulty maintaining Internet connections, and some families don’t have access to Wi-Fi, making online learning challenging.” SLPs are encouraged to document (a) all contact with families, (b) all efforts to keep students engaged in learning, and (c) the provision of FAPE. Colorado SLPs can find state-specific information on the website of the Colorado Department of Education.
In North Carolina, Perry Flynn, MED, CCC-SLP, reports that each school district, or LEA, is deciding the type of speech-language services that will be provided. Flynn, consultant to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction in the area of speech-language pathology, notes that much of the state is providing direct online services in proportionate share to general education (e.g., if the school day is cut in half, then special education services are reduced, as well). Some LEAs have chosen not to provide direct instruction but instead are sending work packets to students, so special education is mirroring this by having SLPs prepare work packets for families to use with their child. North Carolina SLPs are being encouraged to check in with families and be cheerleaders, problem solvers, and consultants to parents. Perry, originally from Pittsburgh, recalled his connection with Mr. Fred Rogers and his conventional wisdom of “Look for the helpers.” Perry said, “SLPs need to look to the helpers, their directors of exceptional children. And remember that parents and students see SLPs as their helpers. Embrace that role!” North Carolina SLPs can find more state-specific information on Perry Flynn’s UNC Greensboro webpage.
Marie Ireland, MEd, CCC-SLP, BCS-CL, a specialist at the Virginia Department of Education and currently ASHA’s Vice President of Speech-Language Pathology Practice, reports that Virginia students may receive a reduced amount of special education service all the way up to the full amount of time included on a student’s individualized education program (IEP). Each LEA—in consideration of equity, community resources, and family support/access—is deciding what they will provide for general education, and that decision drives special education services. Ireland explains: “For example, if a school division decides to send home packets and there is no new learning occurring, then there may not be an obligation to provide speech-language services. Contrast that with a school division that is offering new learning, which then triggers an obligation to offer speech-language services to help students access general education.” Currently, about half of Virginia’s school divisions are offering new learning opportunities using a variety of platforms. When it comes to how to deliver services, Ireland emphasizes the importance of considering (a) federal and state COVID-19 guidance on education and (b) the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). Some LEAs may decide that they want to continue using only HIPAA-compliant platforms. With the relaxation of the HIPAA enforcement, other LEAs may feel comfortable with other platforms. SLPs in Virginia will find state-specific information at VDOE Special Education and Student Services Frequently Asked Questions.
Andrea Bertone, MS, CCC-SLP, is an education consultant with the Special Education Team of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. Wisconsin school districts are expected to make reasonable efforts to provide IEP services, but there is no one-size-fits-all approach during this time of COVID-19. Special education staff are encouraged to support students in similar ways to general education, in consideration of what works for families. Bertone reports that this is a “time to collaborate with families about what to do to support speech-language skills during play or daily activities while at home. SLPs can optimize that more regular contact with families, especially with younger children and children with more significant needs and equip parents to be coaches!” As for which technology platforms to use, Bertone shares that because the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services relaxed its HIPAA regulations during this time, if an SLP uses a platform that their district uses, that platform will most likely meet the privacy standards during this public health emergency. It comes down to protecting personally identifiable information (PII) with regard to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). School districts need to inform parents about what steps the district is taking to protect student privacy. School districts can consider seeking consent from parents for the provision of services virtually. Wisconsin SLPs can visit the webpage of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction for more information.