How teletherapy helps districts cover special ed shortages

Districts and education agencies can look outside their regions to hire hire therapists
By: | March 22, 2021
(AdobeStock/andrey gonchar)

Administrators have faced a range of challenges during education’s big shift online, but many have found new opportunities that should outlast the pandemic.

One of those bright spots is the increasing ability to use improving teletherapy technology to make up for therapists shortages, particularly in rural districts such as those covered by Central Kansas Cooperative in Education.

COVID forced the agency, which provides special education services to 12 school districts across 4,000 square miles, to rethink how it provides online speech therapy for about 1,450 students, Executive Director Michael Lowers says.

“We have had schools that have been fully remote for students, that have been in a hybrid mode and those who have been fully in person moving in and out of different modes,” Lowers says. “Teletherapy online has allowed for virtually uninterrupted services this year.”

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When schools shutdown in March 2020, Lowers’ agency first had to work with the districts to make sure all of the students it serves had devices and Wi-Fi connections.

However, speech therapy requires more robust interactive features than are offered by video-conferencing platforms like Zoom or Teams, Lowers says.

His agency uses software developed by PresenceLearning, an online special education provider that also staffs its own therapists.

The company’s software allows therapists, both from PresenceLearning and those employed by the cooperative, to provide the game-based exercises that drive much speech therapy, he says.

This school year, Lowers says he has been pleased by the range of students who have had success online—including preschoolers and kids with severe cognitive disabilities.

“Many of us thought that this would greatly limit our ability to build relationships with students,” Lowers says. “Kids, however, never cease to amaze me….they are very resilient and flexible and they certainly were so as the pandemic hit.

Teletherapy also allows the agency to search outside its region to hire new speech language therapists. One reason for the area’s shortage is that recent college graduates may work in the cooperative’s district for only a couple of year before moving to a more urbanized area.

Recently, as a pilot program, Lowers has hired two tele-therapists who live in Kansas City, which is on the state’s eastern edge. It also retained another therapist who had to move outside its boundaries.

“For us, it’s a whole new avenue to keep people employed or to draw them here,” Lowers says. “This is going to be a major answer for us in speech, and maybe in other areas  too.”

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