Designing instructional cohorts for students with disabilities

Four do's and one don't for using pods or cohorts within special education to help maintain social distancing and minimize outbreaks

Schools that are opening their doors for in-person instruction during the coronavirus outbreak are being very thoughtful of how they are grouping students. By assigning students to smaller classroom clusters, school administrators hope to minimize the spread of the virus and have a better system to trace who’s been in contact with an infected person on school grounds.

The design of each pod or cohort also should be carefully constructed to ensure equity, build continuity and provide individualized supports and services for students with disabilities, educators say.

“Inclusion is as important now as it’s always been,” says Erin Maguire, the director of student support services for Essex Westford (Vt.) School District. Her district, which has about 600 students with IEPs, is planning a hybrid instructional model. The model divides all students into two groups, with each group altering attendance at schools two full days a week and learning remotely three days a week. Parents also have an option for their child to receive virtual-only instruction.

Guidance from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention advocates for the creation of cohorts of students who would only have contact with each other during the school day. If a positive case is identified in the cohort, then that cohort would remain at home to self-isolate for 14 days. “This helps prevent a disruption to the rest of the school and community by limiting the exposure,” the CDC wrote in guidance released July 23.

The CDC does not recommend a size for cohorts and said no scientific study has been published on the optimal maximum or minimum cohort size for reducing COVID-19 transmission for school-aged children in the U.S. Several state education department guidelines for reopening schools also have not provided a recommended maximum number of students per cohort but instead advised schools to keep cohorts small and stable and to follow social distancing measures.

Maguire, who also serves as president of the Council of Administrators of Special Education, offers several recommendations for school staff as they create instructional cohorts:

– Do make each cohort inclusive. Students with disabilities should be in the educational placement aligned with their IEPs. This means administrators must know the educational placement of each student with disabilities before assigning the student to a cohort. A cohort that only has students with IEPs should be avoided unless the more restrictive placement is appropriate according to the student’s IEP, Maguire says.

– Do provide individualized services. A student with disabilities who is in a general education cohort still must receive the individualized therapies outlined in her IEP. In the Essex Westford School District, administrators are planning for push-in and pull-out services for students with disabilities, Maguire says.

– Do try to pair students with familiar staff, friends. Essex Westford officials are trying to loop students with familiar staff and friends where possible. The established connections will help students and staff ease into a new school year that, because of the coronavirus outbreak, is already stressful. “We’re placing extra importance on relationships,” Maguire says.

– Do explain to parents, staff and students the whys and hows. In a letter to families posted on the district’s website at the end of July, Essex Westford updated the school community on its back-to-school plans, including the process the district used to develop and plan for its hybrid learning approach. The letter told families it was still working on details of students’ schedules and would have that information soon.

– Don’t assume plans won’t change. As Maguire plots the logistics of providing supports to students with disabilities both in-person and online when the school year begins, she has learned to become more flexible and accepting of when those plans need altering. For example, the first day of school recently got delayed a week and the recommended space for social distancing in schools may change from six to three feet, which may alter the cohort groupings. “I’m a planner but I’ve had to learn to be open and ready for changes,” Maguire says.

Kara Arundel covers special education for Special Ed Connection, a DA sister publication.

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