4 easy tips to engage students in virtual special education

Initially, some schools did not believe that they could offer students with disabilities equal access to their education onlie
By: | March 5, 2021
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“In those early days, I was a lot more innocent and a lot more anxious,” said special education teacher John Watts about the first shift from in-person to remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic last March.

Watts is a functional academics teacher at Alternative Paths Training School & Programs in Dumfries, Virginias. Currently he has nine 17 to 22-year-old students, which is the most he’s ever had.

“Back then the teachers I talked to, myself included, had that feeling we wouldn’t be able to teach kids with lower academic levels online,” he said. “They were distracted, challenged enough in person. Approaching [virtual teaching] for the first time didn’t seem possible.”

Indeed, many districts initially opted out of teaching students online altogether because they did not believe that they could offer students with disabilities equal access to their education in the virtual environment.


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The U.S. Education Department addressed that pretty quickly in a fact sheet released in late March.

“We remind schools they should not opt to close or decline to provide distance instruction, at the expense of students, to address matters pertaining to services for students with disabilities,” the document said. “To be clear: ensuring compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504), and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act should not prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction.”

Now, several months and multiple shifts from in-person to remote learning later, Watts has discovered that teaching students with disabilities online is doable.

That’s not to say it’s not without challenges. Students have had to get used to seeing someone’s face in front of them on a screen, as well as seeing their own faces, he said. Some students have not been able to interact with the documents Watts shares online via Google.

“I wanted to send it to them and have them do it,” he said. “[But there were] all kinds of complications.” For example, some students are unable to use the computer mouse.

Meanwhile, others might not interact. It’s particularly challenging teaching online when you know a student is looking at his computer or tablet, but he’s refusing to answer you, Watts said. “There’s no momentum,” he said.

Here are four ways Watts kept his students engaged in learning online that you might share with your teachers.

1. Use Yes/No cards. Have cards laminated with the words “Yes,” “No,” “Hello,” and “Goodbye,” Watts said. Mail them out to students and have them communicate in class using the cards.

“We’d go through pictures with yes or no answers,” he said. For example, Watts would read a question and all the students would have to answer holding up either their “Yes” or their “No” cards.

“That was neat for kids having trouble speaking,” he said. They could pick up the right card, hold it up when everyone did, and be participating.

2. Assign small-group mentors. When appropriate, group students based on their cognitive levels, Watts said. Different groups can answer different questions based on the lesson.

Have one student in each group be the captain whose role is to mentor the other students during group activities. This allows all students to work on their social skills while online, he said.


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3. Create breakout rooms. Take students aside and have an assistant work with them in a breakout room while you work with the other kids, Watts said. “The speech therapist could take Bobby to breakout Room 1 while you go to breakout Room 2, and you can check back with them,” he said.

4. Use interactive online tools. For example, Watts found short movies with quizzes and a Jeopardy game that he could present on the monitor in the classroom for students learning in person, while students learning at home were also able to type in and participate that way.

At the end of the year, Watts plans to do a big project with Google Earth. Students will use it to look up places around the world and present using a smart board with what they’ve found.

“That’s something we used to do all the time, and we can still do it,” he said. “We’ve been in our homes, so they’ll have something to look forward to later in the year,” he said.

Florence Simmons covers Section 504, paraprofessionals, and transportation for LRP Publications.