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[COVID-19 School Closures] How Educators Can Address Special Populations, Accountability, Staff Training and More When Implementing e-Learning

[COVID-19 School Closures] How Educators Can Address Special Populations, Accountability, Staff Training and More When Implementing e-Learning

As schools and districts make the shift to online learning in response the COVID-19 pandemic, educators are faced with lots of questions about how best to ensure that every student continues making forward academic progress. As teachers and administrators work through the difficult transition process, questions about meeting the needs of students who qualify for special education and English language learner (ELL) support are particularly pressing.

The good news is that online environments can provide highly personalized learning—and lots of students and educators have the experience to lean on. That’s why we convened a group of four online learning experts for an interactive, Q&A-driven webinar on what educators can do to address special populations, accountability, staff training and more to make the transition to online learning as smooth as possible:

Kristin Henry, an EdOptions Academy instructional lead with 11 years of online teaching and leadership experience and 3 years of classroom teaching experience

Margaret Olah, an EdOptions Academy virtual special education teacher who also 13 years of experience working with students with a wide variety of exceptional needs.

Daryl Vavrichek, an Edmentum educational programs consultant with 10 years of experience as online master teacher and administrator in addition to 4 years of consulting experience focused on online program implementation

David Disko, an Edmentum education consultant with 21 years of in-person and online teaching, coaching, mentoring, and research experience, as well as 16 years of education consulting experience

Check out the full conversation, or read through the partial, condensed transcript below that has been edited for clarity. We’ve also made on-demand recordings available of other educator-driven webinars on virtual teaching best practices, virtual program implementation, meeting the needs of special populations, and providing parent support.

What kind of training and ongoing support is necessary to equip teachers and other staff to work virtually?

Daryl Vavrichek: When I was an administrator, I focused on giving my teachers latitude, encouragement, and permission to experiment. Creating this kind of environment puts students at ease as well. With this quick transition it's also important to lean on any kind of e-learning structure you already have set up already, and then grow from it. Starting with an intentional framework teachers and students get into a rhythm and deal with other more reactive situations that are going to come up. In the short term, if you've created a safe space for teachers to, provided regular communication and some curricular resources, and offered teachers regular opportunities to check in and provide feedback, you’re off to a good start.


How can administrators communicate shifts toward online learning to make sure students and families feel supported and on-board with the change?

Kristin Henry: Everyone has a lot of anxiety right now, so the most important thing is to empower families by reassuring them that it's going to be okay and that everyone has something to teach. Remind families that they have their students’ teacher to rely on and that learning online is not going to look exactly the same as it does in the brick and mortar classroom.

I think having those clear expectations, starting out small and simple, and communicating out very detailed but concise and calming messages to families is key. Don't overwhelm them with too much information at once—just let them know that we're all learning together, and we can rely on each other.

How can educators ensure special education students, English language learners (ELLs), and other special populations receive the individualized attention they need when learning online?

Margaret Olah: First and foremost, special populations teachers are incredibly creative people—we already are the purveyors of this ideology of ‘do what you can with what you have’. There are so many subscription and free websites like Newsela, Rewordify, Khan Academy, and Prodigy the Math Game that can help special education teachers recreate activities from the traditional classroom in the online environment. There are online whiteboards—many of you probably already played with these. You can gamify learning with programs like Kahoot, Edmentum’s Study Island, and Sheppard software. PBS Kids is another great site, even through high school, for our special populations. Google Chrome, which most teachers and students have access to, has browser extensions like a dyslexia font, a translator for multiple languages, text-to-speech or speech-to-text, and so much more. These tools are not hard to use, and they're easy to find.

I know many educators have questions about Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and 504 plan meetings, 30-day timelines, and other legal requirements. The federal government has issued ongoing guidance on how to proceed when schools are shut down, and local state and district education agencies are doing the same. Double check all the updates from your state and district authorities to understand specific requirements in your area.

How can administrators and teachers ensure reporting and accountability requirements are met while students are learning online?

David Disko: In this situation, we need to expand our ideas about testing and accountability. I've been talking to some of the schools and districts I consult with about the idea of not using tests as devices to gauge student readiness instead of measurement devices. Instead of simply grading students based off of test results, use online assessment programs to understand how students are engaging with the test material and if they’re ready for what’s next.

Testing can also help gauge whether students are ready for an alternative assessment device—this can be helpful in avoiding online learning becoming monotonous. Use traditional test results to decide if a student is ready for a more hands-on, creative form of assessment, like using Minecraft to design a model of the city the book they just finished was set in, or using Zoom to give a presentation on what they just learned.

Daryl: There’s two really important words that we’re talking about here: accountability and requirements. If we are talking about extended school closures, we need to talk about ‘What does the required content look like?’ State assessments are being cancelled, so we need to think about what our summer planning looks like and what we’re planning for next year in terms of curriculum if we don’t get as far as planned this year.

What kind of expectations should administrators have for their teachers? What is it that the teachers need to be able to turn into administrators and administrators should expect from teachers?

Kristin: If online learning is something brand new, keep it simple. Communicate expectations very clearly and make sure teachers have the resources they need. Ask teachers for their feedback and include them in the planning process as your online learning program evolves. Teachers have some amazing ideas and when you ask them what they need the accountability piece tends to fall into place.

Keep in mind that your staff is probably pretty nervous right now as they're moving from brick mortar into 100% online, plus dealing with their own home lives. Be gracious and understanding and intentionally try not to overwhelm them. This goes back to communication—if you’re communicating with your staff consistently, you're going to know whether or not they're doing their jobs.

If you have a staff member who is struggling, pair them with another teacher who is more comfortable with online tools and resources. Have them share with each other and focus on starting small.

How should online instruction in the online environment look for general education students as compared to those students receiving special education services?

Margaret: This is really no different than your brick-and-mortar general education as compared to special education or your special populations. Gen ed students may be asked to do thing one thing, while a special education student's plan guides you to do a different variation. You're still going to use your students’ IEPs or 504 plans or ELL plans as guidance. Specific requirements will always looks a different from state to state.

I have found that in an online environment I have more flexibility to provide these accommodations. I get more time to decide these three kiddos need division before we can master your square roots, or these kiddos need extra time to identify shapes before they can master Pythagorean theorem. The online classroom gives you the option to take that extra time.

How can online teachers effectively work with students who have been diagnosed with autism?

Margaret: A consistent schedule is huge for these kiddos, and most families will already have a schedule at home for the morning and evening, so you can work as a team to build in online learning. Just keep in mind—kids are comfortable at home. They often feel the most safe in one environment versus another, and when we try to implement a new structure into that system, we may see huge changes in our students. Having grace to recognize the difficulty of this transition and say if math isn't going to happen right now, it's okay, is so critical. Allow some meltdowns to happen, but focus on adhering to a basic version of a schedule, even if it’s just getting dressed, brushing teach, and making the bed. Following the same routine will be significant for these kiddos.

Kristin: If a parent, grandparent, aunt, or other family member has a hobby, take that and use it as a teachable moment with these kids to ease into online learning. One of our other instructional leaders told me today that she made bread with her kids yesterday and used that like a science experiment.

What kind of documentation would you recommend that teachers be keeping on students as we go through this process?

David: I would keep track of every basic contact, whether it's individual or group, and I would probably just do it in a simple spreadsheet labeled with date, time, duration, and very basic notes. If you reach out to somebody and they're not responsive, make a note of that as well. That way you have everything documented in case there are questions later. On the other hand, you could refer back to all this time you’ve spent working with students and talk to your administrators about a bonus, raise, or even a promotion.

Daryl: Looking at documentation from an administrative lens, if your mandate is to reach certain academic milestones or continue learning progression with the idea of being back in the classroom in X amount of days, that should inform your staff expectations around documentation. It goes back to leaning back on an e-learning or digital learning plan—you need to have a process in place for identifying how students demonstrate knowledge.

Margaret: Make sure you're still keeping confidentiality. Keep records so you know what you've assigned and you can look for those specific pieces to identify what students have met and what they haven't met. That way, if we are going back to school in X amount of days, you know exactly where students are at.

So obviously continue, just like you would in your brick and mortar classroom. Log into your system, document everything you do for your special populations because this isn't anything new for special populations teachers. You guys do it every single day, but you may be adding something new like a different level of a very goal specific kiddo. "Hey, this kiddo still can't identify polygons. I'm going to make sure that they get an extra 20-minute game time of polygons." And who knows? You may get them to finally get it if you find the right game, so document it.


What is an appropriate cadence of work to provide students with?

Kristin: Students need some structure, especially transitioning from a traditional classroom, but you also need to allow for flexibility. You don't want learning to come to a screeching halt, but you also don't want students to get frustrated or overwhelmed. Not everything is going translate from brick and mortar into the virtual classroom, but pieces will. If a set daily schedule is working, keep students on that daily schedule, but consider setting some goals for the week as well to allow for more flexibility. If a student knows they need to complete X, Y and Z by the end of the week—especially for older, more independent students—they have the opportunity to schedule their time in a way that works for them.

It really does depend on student age. Elementary students are probably going to need that structure every single day to be told what to do. Older students can probably handle more flexibility and managing their own time is also a life skill you can build into your teaching. I'm a huge fan of giving older students individualized pacing guides to help them plan.

How can educators partner with parents, especially if parents are working full-time and aren't going to be in the home to consistently support students during the day?

Daryl: We’re all living in a strange reality right now. First off, communicate with parents. Reinforce that, it’s okay for them to do just as much as they can manage. It's that adage of ‘I don't have all the answers, but let's find out together.’ Beyond that, aim for true partnership. Ask how you can help them, and give them transparency into what their student is working on by sharing user names and logins for online programs, or providing parent dashboard access when it’s available.

Margaret: In our virtual reality world right now, I have kiddos who disappear for two or three weeks at a time based on their family structure. Meet those families where they’re at, and work with those kiddos to make sure they're staying caught up in their lessons. Every family is going to be a little bit different.

Daryl: If your teacher hasn't offered some sort of Facebook or Google group or something, be the parent that does it. Just make one and email the teacher and say “Can we get all the parents on this same Facebook page that I just created?” That moves mountains, when you start getting everybody involved.

Kristin: This is a great time to build that community. Encourage teachers to reach out to parents. Find out what families’ situations are without getting too personal—obviously, if they want to share, they will. Focus on asking what families need, and figuring out how school staff can realistically help.

As a virtual teacher, what is the one or two things that you would really suggest folks have right at hand to make that job easier?

Kristin: Rely on each other. Build community amongst educators. Find those educators who have been teaching online for a while and ask them to help you.

Daryl: Have a plan, but don't over engineer it. Focus on sticking to general guidelines—what three things can you get done today? Leveraging digital curriculum in successful grows exponentially every year. It's not going away. Allow this moment of forced digital learning to expand your thinking, and let that guide your strategic planning.

David: Create a good, comfortable workspace, because you're going to be there for a while.

Margaret: Bring your sense of humor. Something's going to go wrong every day. Some technology will not work as you plan. Roll with it. And remember you’re not an island. You know teachers who have been implementing technology for longer than they care to admit. Utilize them. Ask questions. Now is not the time to be afraid of the unknown, because the unknown will not only translate for the right now, but it will follow you back to your classroom when we’re past this.

Kristin: Take every opportunity to learn alongside your fellow teachers, your families, and your kids. Let them see your learning, because that in itself is a skill. Have fun with it and if something goes wrong, make it a learning opportunity.

Edmentum is committed to being your partner in navigating this transition to virtual learning. Check out all of our free resources to continue learning during school closures, with best practice guides, parent communication templates, video lessons, additional webinars, and more.'s picture
Sarah Cornelius

Sarah Cornelius is an Associate Product Manager at Edmentum and has been with the company since 2014. In her role, she works to provide educators with engaging and insightful resources. Sarah received her B.S. in Professional Communications and Emerging Media from the University of Wisconsin - Stout.