COVID-19: Delivering special needs services at home

Advice for administrators (and caregivers) on providing support for students
By: | April 6, 2020
(Photo by Igor Starkov on Unsplash)(Photo by Igor Starkov on Unsplash)
Matthew X. Joseph is director of curriculum, instruction and assessment at Leicester Public Schools in Massachusetts, and he is a featured speaker for FETC.

Matthew X. Joseph is director of curriculum, instruction and assessment at Leicester Public Schools in Massachusetts, and he is a featured speaker at FETC.

Schools across the nation remain closed in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Every day, districts are working to make plans for teachers and students to continue to work remotely; educators are finding resources to support e-learning; and state and federal officials are providing guidelines on how to handle the needs of all students.

However, in the rush to support students and maintain connections with them academically and emotionally, are we ensuring that all students are supported while away from school?

Where districts stand

Parents of special education students are looking for ways to support their children at home, while teachers are searching for ways to assist those students. Many special needs students need individual, in-person attention. However, when schools are closed, those services stop.

The U.S. Department of Education recently published a statement saying that if a school closure results in the interruption of educational services for all students, then the school or district is not obligated to provide services to the affected students eligible for special education during that time.


Read: Updated: 105 free K-12 resources during coronavirus pandemic


As a district leader, and the president-elect for the Massachusetts Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, I have been included in numerous collaborative meetings these past weeks that have focused on this topic. During those meetings, I have heard that teachers are visiting students’ homes and advising families on physical therapy techniques. Teachers are also recording and sending videos to provide technical support to families and students. Other educators are calling, texting and emailing parents to answer questions and stay in touch with students.

Regardless of all the efforts being made by dedicated educators, they are short-term solutions. Some districts and schools may be in a position to continue teaching students using distance-learning methods; however, equity is a critical consideration. School leaders are wrestling with how to deliver special education services while staying compliant with state and federal civil rights law. Many districts have shut down but have not required distance learning because they haven’t figured out a way to serve all students.


Read: How educators can build equity in an online learning era


At the time of this article, 12 states have ordered or recommended school closures for the year, which means that many states intend to return before the close of the fiscal year 2020 school year. With a return as the current plan, districts should be communicating with parents regarding IEP services. After this extended closure, districts are responsible for reviewing how the closure impacted the delivery of special education, and other related services, to students.

Beyond short-term solutions

The coronavirus is keeping individuals away from physical school buildings, but there is still work to do. IEP teams cannot meet in person while schools are closed, yet, if an evaluation of a student with a disability requires a reevaluation or initial meeting, a team can meet virtually with a student’s parent or legal guardian with consent. The same virtual meeting process can be in place for a student with a disability who has a 504 plan or an initial qualifying meeting. For virtual meetings to occur, however, the data for the assessments had to have been conducted before the school closing; all face-to-face assessments and/or observations cannot take place during extended closures.


Read: 4 ways to strengthen your online special education


For students with special education services, ensuring accessibility to technology may allow them to access high-quality instruction during extended school closures. However, if such students attend a school that does not provide 1-to-1 technology, those students will need to be provided with devices. Many online learning options have embedded accommodations. School leadership and special education liaisons should review IEPs and communicate with families about any accommodations provided by the online learning sites.

Special education teachers can maintain an open line of communication with families and students to provide academic and emotional support during this difficult time.

Special education teachers can maintain an open line of communication with families and students to provide academic and emotional support during this difficult time. COVID-19 brings new challenges we have never dealt with in education. Students with special needs are not the only ones struggling. Their parents are trying to figure out how to balance working from home with teaching and supervising their children 24/7. In addition, some parents may be worried about keeping their jobs during this crisis.

Nine at-home learning strategies

Although schools are working incredibly hard to offer support via online learning opportunities, it can be challenging for students with special needs. Navigating at-home learning can be even more daunting for parents of children with special needs. Families are finding themselves in a role they never imagined: home-schooling a special education student. Learners, regardless of school level, can struggle for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, it is related to their capacity to read or to the ability to follow directions. Sometimes, their struggles are related to stressors.


Read: School leaders make quick adjustments to online learning


Here are nine at-home learning strategies that parents or caregivers can use to help their special needs children.

  1. Establish an at-home schedule. This is the most important thing caregivers can do. A schedule will provide routine and a sense of normalcy during a very abnormal time. An established routine lets students know what to expect each day. Students with special needs often require and benefit from visual schedules. For students who struggle with time management, incorporating visual timers will help them know when an activity is coming to an end or when it is time to start the next activity on the schedule.
  2. Stay positive. There is increased stress for everyone in households now. Parents should try their best to be aware of how they are interacting with their kids. They should stay positive and encouraging.
  3. Praise often. Change is hard for everyone; parents should acknowledge that every day. When children are doing something that should be continued, parents should praise them, and the behavior is likely to be repeated.
  4. Give breaks. A schedule is essential, but so are breaks. Parents should schedule breaks and time away from work and the computer during the day.
  5. Use nonverbal reminders or prompts. Visuals are great for reminding children of expectations without having to tell them what to do. Caregivers should incorporate as many nonverbal cues as possible.
  6. Provide incentives. Students will be motivated to complete work and follow the schedule when provided with an incentive. Parents should try to refrain from referring to them as rewards, however.
  7. Choose your battles. If getting dressed is going to be the beginning of a downward spiral, parents should let their children spend the day in their pajamas. This time of uncertainty requires flexibility. Focus on the schedule, and choose your battles.
  8. Welcome the help of siblings. Siblings can help with communication and technology support.
  9. Incorporate physical movement. Physical movement is essential for our brains and our bodies. Ensure that children (and caregivers) are moving by taking walks and being outside when possible.

If the COVID-19 virus continues to keep students out of school, the need for creative approaches to meeting the needs of students with special needs will grow. Ideally, schools, agencies and districts will share their ideas and experiences with each other and leverage the opportunity for innovative solutions.

Providing a universal assemblage of options that can be used by all will significantly benefit students with special needs. Developing a thoughtful approach to serving students with disabilities must be woven into any plan from the onset; we can never treat the most vulnerable students as an afterthought.


Matthew X. Joseph is director of curriculum, instruction and assessment at Leicester Public Schools in Massachusetts, and he is a featured speaker at FETC®.


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