Now that students are completing the school year remotely as all residents quarantine during the coronavirus pandemic, educators are faced with making sure no student falls through the cracks.
That could be especially challenging for special education students, but each school district in the Shoals has plans that fit its student body.
Wade Turberville, special education director and deputy superintendent for Colbert County schools, said, like all the local systems, they will offer a blended plan that incorporates technology and traditional paper and pencil instruction.
"Each parent of a child in special education will be contacted to determine which method best meets the needs of the family and the child," Turberville said. "The student's disability area and needs of the student will determine the lessons they are assigned."
The student's case manager will determine which goals and areas the student is working on and needs for instruction.
He said they should be able to begin instruction Monday.
"The case manager for each student will oversee the program and progress for each child through collaboration with parents," Turberville said.
If parents run into problems, Turberville said they can turn to their case manager or the central office for help. Turberville said they can assist a child any time of the day.
"This is not the traditional 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. school day," he said
Seniors in good standing at the end of the last grading period will be considered graduated.
"This is true for special education students as well," Turberville said. "If they are not in good standing, then they will work on assignments needed in order to gain good standing in order to graduate."
Case managers will provide lessons in accordance with the student's Individualized Education Plan (IEP).
Turberville said there are 699 students in special education programs, including 243 who are considered "gifted" students.
Of the remaining students, 42 are autistic, 20 have developmental delay issues, two have emotion disabilities, two are hearing impaired and 17 have intellectual disabilities.
Turberville said one student has multiple disabilities, 63 have "other health impairments" two have orthopedic impairments, 74 have speech/language impairments and 233 have specific learning disabilities.
Lauderdale Special Education Director Brooke Gilmer said the first step in making adjustments involved talking with families.
"We had to start with figuring out what each family's capability would be," Gilmer said. "We have online access but not all of our students do. Each teacher is contacting parents or guardians by phone, surveying them and finding out what resources they have available. Then we look at the skills and goals of each student, and then deliver a plan based on that.
"Every child's plan looks different based on their weakness and IEP, so it's a little more complicated for special ed."
Gilmer said this is uncharted territory, so they constantly are reviewing steps and consulting with each other.
"We've worked on this for days now and still think of areas that we still haven't taken into account," she said. "We have virtual meetings with lead teachers and they'll come up with things we haven't thought about. You can't foresee every obstacle you have to work through."
That includes students who need physical therapy (PT), Gilmer said.
"We have a couple of options for PT," she said. "We have means for tele-therapy with the therapist on one end and parents on the other. For those without access we'll provide instructional packets we can send to them."
Lauderdale County has just over 1,000 students in the special education program, including speech programs, Gilmer said. That does not include some 600 in the gifted program.
The key is to focus on individual needs, like hearing or sight impairment.
"Those are students with really specific needs so we'll address those on a 1-to-1 aspect," Gilmer said.
A district teacher for vision-impaired students works directly with families.
"Some have materials in Braille so they'll work with them on where that student is, and continue to study," Gilmer said. "Some are not proficient enough in Braille to be able to do that, so it depends on what they can do."
Becky Odell, director of special education for Florence City Schools, said there is no guidebook to lead special education teachers through remote learning through this pandemic.
"We are writing the book as we go," Odell said.
Florence has 600 students in special education. That is about 11% of its overall enrollment, Odell said.
The system has 13 categories of special needs, with speech language impairment and specific learning disability the two largest, followed by other health impaired, she said.
She said they are contacting parents of each student.
"All of our special education teachers have really good relationships, close relationships, with the students and their families," Odell said. "They're checking on how the students are doing first, and the family, and seeing if there are needs the teachers don't know about, including basic needs for the family."
After that, the questions revolved around internet access, she said. From there, the focus is based on the Individualized Education Program (IEP) of each student.
Odell said a variety of blended models can be used that involve online access, distance learning, resources and instructional packets that families can pick up.
"We're just trying to be creative and really meet the families where they are," she said.
That includes adapting for students who have physical therapy needs.
"I'm going to do some videos on exercises, using my child as a model, and that's a video I can send to the parent," Odell said, adding the parent can show her how they are implementing the exercises. "It's all very individualized."
She said technology will help. As an example, Odell said students with dyslexia can be read to from their devices.
"If they're doing a chapter book, they can have that read to them," Odell said.
She said the devices and technology are not suddenly being thrown to the parents and students.
"We are a 1-to-1 district, so the parents are very familiar with the technology," Odell said. "That's a great thing during these circumstances. They're not being given a device they don't know how to use."
Muscle Shoals will start rolling out its remote education plans Monday, said Richard Templeton, special education coordinator for the Muscle Shoals School District.
"The canceling of schools doesn't negate the plan in place, and we are working with parents on how to implement the plan as much as possible," he said.
Superintendent Bryan Lindsey said teachers have spent the past week contacting students and parents.
"First we want to make a connection with every student in our district. We wanted to make sure they were OK and that their family members were OK," Lindsey said.
He said teachers also wanted to make sure students had access to the internet, and if not, to let them know the district had options to provide the information to them.
"We are just trying to cover the standards that would have been covered by the end of the year," Lindsey said.
He said teachers will have office hours and if there are concerns, parents can contact teachers.
"Oftentimes students who are ADD (attention deficit disorder) or ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) have deficits in executive functioning skills," Templeton said. "So we've given them strategies that are specifically geared toward online learning."
For example, they are offering visual schedules and timers, which tell students what time to start a lesson and how long it should take. This is meant to help students stay on schedule and help organize their thoughts.
Another strategy they are offering is called backwards planning, which helps students visualize what a finished project should look like and know what steps need to be taken to get there.
The school also will use videos and polls to help a student maintain focus as well as ongoing chats within the lessons. Also important, Templeton said, is to build in movement breaks so they have time in between lessons to relax and refocus.
"Adults can't sit for long periods of time without getting up and moving around," Templeton said. "It's no different for the students. Why should we require them to do something we can't?"
Students will also be given a list of activities to do around the house, such as doing laundry, brushing their teeth, cleaning and being hygienic.
The district is working on how to provide related services to their students that are usually done through contracted providers, such as speech and language therapy, physical therapy and mental health services. They hope to continue as many of these as they can.
"Some of the things they do are stretches," Templeton said. "We will have to teach the parents how to do those so the child still gets the benefit of the therapy when the provider can't touch the child."
Julie Box, special education director for Sheffield City Schools, said teachers are contacting every child’s parent to collect information regarding availability of internet connectivity and each parent’s preference for virtual versus paper/pencil type assignments.
With that information, teachers will develop learning plans that address the annual goals of each child’s individual educational plan (IEP).
Each child’s IEP is being followed as closely as possible. In the instance that a child is accustomed to physical therapy at school, the therapist now utilizes tele-therapy to address those specific physical needs.
“It’s a tough situation for everyone involved and the federal guidelines haven’t changed at all, which has been rather surprising to everyone,” Box said. “So we’re being really creative while attempting to deliver all the same services, just in a different format.”
Special education teachers will monitor student progress closely, Box said.
“For students working through a virtual platform, the data will be readily available to teachers online, and for students completing packets at home, teachers will communicate frequently with parents in order to determine progress and decide if instruction needs adjustment,” she said.
The Sheffield district serves 175 students with disabilities. Of those, 18 are students with an autism disorder, 56 are students with a special learning disability such as dyslexia, 38 are students with speech/language impairments and 34 are students with other health impairments such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
For those students who don’t respond well to online educational services, teachers are working with parents to identify special activities that the students can do in the home that are similar to tasks they’d do at school.
Box said for some students, the activities will be in line with daily life skills such as cooking simple meals, helping sort and fold clothes, counting specific items or repeating simple words or phrases.
In the case of a dyslexic students, Box said many are capable of completing grade appropriate assignments when their materials are read aloud, or by using computer-based text-to-speech software as they do in school.
As for graduation, teachers will be reviewing each student’s grades at the end of the third grading period thus identifying any critical content standards to be addressed before credit can be awarded. Special education teachers will collaborate with core high school teachers to develop a plan providing remediation for students that require it.
“Our goal is that all our seniors with disability will be prepared to graduate as planned,” Box said.
Tuscumbia's special education coordinator Marsha Ricks said that like other districts, daily instruction will consist of a combination of virtual learning and paper packets.
“The main thing is that our special education teachers are making themselves available for support to the students and parents,” Ricks said. “Accommodations will be made as outlined in the students’ IEP.”
Ricks said there are currently no visually impaired students in the district, but students with special services and accommodations will continue to have those.
“With no face-to-face instruction, those services may look different but we’ll continue services in a different format and are implementing a variety of creative measures to demonstrate good faith effort to our students and parents during this unprecedented time,” she said.
She said IEP’s will be followed as much as possible, with special education teachers collaborating with general education teachers to ensure lessons are being accommodated.
Ricks said parents of the most severely challenged students will have access to their child’s teachers for instruction and guidance.
Tuscumbia’s special education students will be assessed for graduation in accordance with the district’s Academic Continuity Plan. All who were passing and in good standing at the end of the third nine weeks grading period will be considered as having met graduation requirements. Education services will continue for students if the parent or student requests them, Ricks said. Seniors that are failing or have not mastered their goals will continue to be supported as outlined in their IEP.
The school system serves 180 special education students: 20 on the autism spectrum, 11 with intellectual disabilities, 61 with specific learning disabilities, one traumatic brain injury, 10 developmental delayed, 53 speech/language impaired, and 24 with other health impairments.
-- TimesDaily staff Bernie Delinski, Leah Daniels, Lisa Singleton-Rickman and Russ Corey contributed to this report.