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Special Education Works to Connect Students to Services During COVID

Rikki Saunders During the now yearlong pandemic, Kalamazoo Public Schools Special Education department has been busy ensuring students receive the services they need. 

“What we’re doing is what we have always done, making sure students who may need services get evaluations,” said Reuquiyah “Rikki” Saunders, director of special education for KPS. “We determine if we can do that with fidelity in a remote situation.” 

The challenge, Saunders said, is that traditional evaluations require evaluators to meet one-on-one with students and to observe them in the classroom and outside of class in other settings.

“Clearly our assessments and our IEPs (Individualized Education Program) plans have always been written to be implemented face-to-face,” she said. IEPs are the documents that are written by a student’s parents and a team of district personnel to help guide the learning of a student with special education needs. 

“Watching kids on computers is difficult. We never want to determine if a student has a disability just because of the pandemic. A lot of people are struggling in the pandemic, and we want to make sure our determinations are based on the best protocols.” 

After conducting evaluations, the department has been challenged to provide services in a way that families and students may not be used to, Saunders said. A speech therapist or occupational therapist, for example, may have to provide their services remotely. And rather than create a plan to provide remote learning for a high school student with anxiety, the special education staff may focus on finding ways to make the remote experience more accessible for the student. 

“We are having to create goals that we can meet through distance learning — until we are back in face-to-face learning,” she said. 

Over 1,600 students — more than 13 percent of the district’s students — qualify for special education services. 

In addition to special education teachers, the department has deployed school psychologists, teacher consultants, social workers, occupational therapists and physical therapists to bring services to students. 

Staff use traditional therapies and lessons to support students, but they are also delivering food to students, helping families connect to technology, holding small group lessons, and just calling and checking in with children — as well as delivering specially crafted social-emotional learning lessons to support the mental health of all students. 

“And still, at the end of the day we’re always reviewing to see who we are not reaching,” Saunders said. “We may not be face-to-face, but we are trying to make it work for students to the best of our abilities.” 

Not every service translates to a virtual setting, but the staff is determined to fulfill IEPs with as much fidelity as possible. Every special education student has a remote learning plan, Saunders said. 

The remote learning plans include having special education teachers meet with students four days a week to provide specialized instruction as needed, review goals, and assess what accommodations and supports students need and how those services might be provided in a virtual setting, she said. 

“It takes a lot of planning and coordination with families,” to ensure the services are delivered, she said. Saunders said she knows some children are just tired of virtual learning and staff are working hard to help support those students with activities they can do at home and to connect students and families with community resources that might be able to provide supplemental support, such as the community-based equity cohorts, which provide food, tutoring, and exercise opportunities. 

At the same time, she said, she’s been pleasantly surprised to find there are students who have blossomed in the virtual setting. Some students who struggle with anxiety and sometimes actively worked to get kicked out of class to avoid the stress, are now participating 95 percent of the time because virtual learning is more effective for them. 

Through all the challenges, staff are working to determine whether students have a disability and are not simply responding in a developmentally normal way to a stressful situation, Saunders said. 

“When we resume face-to-face, we can help those students recover some of their skills.”