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 these questions:
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.
How many minutes of speech-language services should I provide? Should I match the minutes exactly as stated in the IEP, should I provide only a percentage of those minutes, or should I just offer consultation and support for families only?
SLPs need to follow the direction of their special education directors and provide IEP services to the greatest extent possible. Students may need compensatory services, but the IEP team will make that decision when brick-and-mortar school is back in session. Tami Cassel, MA, CCC-SLP, a supervisor and speech-language pathology specialist with the Colorado Department of Education’s Exceptional Student Services shares that SLPs in Colorado are staying in contact with families, checking with them regularly about their readiness to access services, providing telepractice services through a variety of platforms, and, where applicable, providing suggestions for how to encourage speech-language skills during daily activities.
Perry Flynn, MED, CCC-SLP, consultant to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction in the area of speech-language pathology, feels that typical procedural compliance seems to have gone “out the window in this time.” The U.S. Department of Education has issued “a letter about procedural compliance,” and he hopes for a subsequent clarifying letter that will help states better understand compliance in this time of COVID-19. “You are acting ethically and with compliance” states Flynn, “if you are acting in the best interest of kids with equity—across exceptional children services and general education.” Currently, in most districts in North Carolina, special education is providing an equal proportion of service as general education. For example, if general education is providing a 50% virtual day, then special education (speech) would provide 50% of the services that would be provided under usual circumstances.
The provision of speech-language services first depends on what is being offered in general education, according to 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. If general education is offering new learning opportunities, then the student could receive a reduced amount of speech-language services—up to the full amount of speech-language services denoted in a student’s IEP. In Virginia, local educational agencies (LEAs) can amend the IEP to document family circumstances that impact services during this unprecedented time or create a temporary learning plan.
Andrea Bertone, MS, CCC-SLP, an education consultant with the Special Education Team of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, acknowledges that during this pandemic, schools can’t provide all of their usual services. If the hours of instruction for all students are reduced, the district should consider whether the amount of special education and related services should be adjusted in response to the revised school day. Consider and document what services are provided and how they are provided—and communicate with families. Special education staff in Wisconsin are being encouraged to collaborate and streamline services to families, in consideration of what works for families and what students need.
How can SLPs make the time to see students who can’t have their distance learning time interrupted? Teachers are responsible for providing 2 hours of instruction per day, whereas SLPs are working in excess of 8 hours per day to meet the required minutes set forth in the IEP.
Provision of services may be a little more time intensive during this pandemic. Tami Cassel, MA, CCC-SLP, a supervisor and speech-language pathology specialist with the Colorado Department of Education’s Exceptional Student Services, gave an example of a group of SLPs working together to create a speech-language video library for families to use (e.g., a video to give guidance on how to read a story to best support language skills). Colorado has what it calls Boards of Cooperative Education Services (BOCES), each of which includes several smaller districts. During the pandemic, the special education staff in these BOCES are sharing their resources with one another. Some SLPs are joining general education teachers in their virtual classrooms. The general education teacher provides instruction, and then the SLP participates in a breakout group with students. This type of collaboration requires planning, and SLPs are encouraged to use technology to their advantage. Teachers can share their lesson plan digitally, and the SLP can add to the plan and/or adapt it for the students whom they support.
“Flexibility is the name of the game,” says Perry Flynn, MED, CCC-SLP, consultant to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction in the area of speech-language pathology. If SLPs are providing direct services, providing them when the student is not engaged in classroom instruction is important. For example, if general education instruction is happening in the morning, then related services could occur in the afternoon. If direct instruction is not happening, SLPs can collaborate with parents, related service providers and other school personnel to provide activities and consultation that will support students.
“The amount of time and the schedule is based on the local decision of what and how much is being offered in general education,” says 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. If there is a local decision to not interrupt general education time, then hopefully the SLP can schedule their services at a different time. The majority of school divisions that are offering new learning are using a shortened virtual day, so there are many times outside of virtual instruction that are available. If the school division is offering continuous learning (not new instruction), there may not be an obligation to provide free appropriate public education (FAPE). In these places, SLPs are checking in, supporting families, and providing resources, without the provision of direct services.
During school closure due to the pandemic, SLPs are not expected to provide services in the same way as when school buildings are physically open. SLPs share the responsibility of creating a collaborative culture and need to support families in the learning that is already happening. SLPs need to consider the student’s IEP goal and progress toward goal—and then leverage their relationships with other professionals to streamline services to maximize the most benefit to address a student’s unique needs. “Communicate, document, and remember to take care of ourselves and one another,” says Andrea Bertone, MS, CCC-SLP, an education consultant with the Special Education Team of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.