No one in our district could have predicted how this past year would play out with schools closing because of COVID-19. Faced with an extraordinary challenge, we immediately went to work to make sure our staff and students—both those in general education and those in special education—had the support and resources they needed. Keeping the teaching and learning going was a top priority.
When it came to special education services, our district was fortunate enough to already be experienced using teletherapy for speech-language therapy in many of our schools. This played a huge role in us successfully continuing these services for students with disabilities at home, as we were able to share our experiences with teletherapy with all of our special education staff and students.
The Initial Need for Teletherapy
Kershaw County School District is a large, rural district located in South Carolina that has experienced a shortage of speech-language therapists for several years. Our district’s 20 schools are spread across 740 square miles, making it one of the most geographically expansive districts in the state. This large geographic reach makes it difficult and time-intensive for therapists to provide services.
Our district also struggled with simply having enough speech-language therapists to cover the number of students with speech and language needs as defined by their IEPs. In addition, many of our in-person speech-language therapists provide services in multiple schools throughout the district—rather than being assigned to a single school site—making it difficult if we ever had to make up speech sessions. Knowing we needed to find a way to address these issues, we turned to teletherapy.
First, we wanted to ensure that our staff knew what was going to occur with teletherapy and how it worked. It was important to be up-front about our expectations for support staff on their role in the teletherapy.
One of the initial fears our school staff had was that they might be replaced. However, once we got started with teletherapy and our staff settled into their roles, everyone started to understand the importance of teletherapy in providing consistent, high-quality services to our students. Our team and the team from PresenceLearning— a leading provider of live online special education-related services for K–12—worked hand-in-hand, including collaborating closely on schedules and IEP meetings, to provide the best possible services to our students.
By working together as partners—on-site and remote therapists, staff, and families—the progress and results have been pretty amazing. This collaboration really helped our support staff see the results that online therapists were achieving and understand the benefits of teletherapy firsthand.
As school leaders, we were also able to observe teletherapy sessions taking place in our classrooms. As we walked around those rooms, it became very noticeable how engaged students were with their online therapists. At first, we weren’t sure how the students would respond to teletherapy and receiving their services remotely, but students were so engaged they wouldn’t even notice we were in the room unless we came into the back of their video screen.
From a logistical standpoint, it had been difficult before teletherapy to match therapists’ schedules with students’ schedules. With teletherapy, we learned that we don’t have to factor in travel time, and the flexibility of our online therapists has made it much easier to schedule sessions and provide a much more consistent level of service to our students.
Because of our communication, collaboration, and the smooth rollout, teletherapy quickly became ingrained in our school culture and daily routines. Students are excited to attend their sessions, making improvements, reaching goals set out by their IEPs, and forming solid relationships with their therapists.
Transitioning to At-Home Services
Our experiences with and knowledge of teletherapy helped our district as we moved to remote learning and in-home services to support our students with special needs. Since we had already been using teletherapy in schools, we were already halfway there—we had a sound, working system set up to deliver the services online.
Our students could continue their speech therapy services while learning from home with the level of comfort they had had in our buildings. Having this live interaction and engagement with their therapists while everyone was adjusting to full-time remote learning was very beneficial to them.
Because we were already conducting IEP meetings remotely with our teletherapists, staff, and parents of students receiving speech services, we could use those skills and knowledge to swiftly set up remote IEP meetings for all special education students.
Actively involving parents in the process has been so important. With the PresenceLearning platform, parents can log in to their child’s therapy session so they know exactly what’s going on and have a good understanding of the skills being learned. With school closures and remote learning, parents also witnessed sessions in person, and this connection to their child’s therapy has helped them reinforce those skills at home.
Positioned for Success
When we decided to move to teletherapy, we thought we were trailblazing in providing services to students using a medium that they love. With remote learning, we now realize just how important this initial experience with online delivery of services was in setting us up to better meet students’ needs during the pandemic.
As the future of learning continues to be unknown, our district’s use of teletherapy has put us in a strong position to effectively provide our students with much-needed services, regardless of where the teaching and learning are taking place.
Lesley Corner is the principal at Camden High School in Camden, SC, and a 2016 NASSP Assistant Principal of the Year finalist. Chad Dixon is the principal at North Central Middle School in Kershaw, SC. Tarry McGovern is the director of special services for Kershaw County School District in Kershaw. Lori Pate is the assistant principal at North Central Middle School.