Remote education for students with special learning needs topic of ESD community forum

Edmonds School District Assistant Superintendent Dana Geaslen (bottom) and Psychology and Counseling Services Manager Kate Pothier (top right) discuss how staff plan to educate students with special needs remotely while Lora Eberhard (top left) interprets in American Sign Language.

Edmonds School staff held a virtual community forum Tuesday to discuss how students with special learning needs will be supported as the 2020-21 school year begins remotely.

After announcing last month that schools would remain closed to in-person learning this fall at the advice of public health officials, the district has been working to prepare families for what remote learning will look. The Tuesday forum — which can be viewed on the district’s YouTube page — was the first of several district-sponsored community forums to allow families to bring their concerns directly to staff.

During her opening remarks, Assistant Superintendent Dana Geaslen said the education landscape is constantly changing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and district staff are working to provide families with the most up-to-date information available. Geaslen also encouraged families to continue offering feedback to staff as the district plans for the new year.

“We just really want to communicate with you and hear from you,” she said.

Geaslen began the forum with a brief overview of the district’s plans to educate students with special needs. She said the district will reimplement students’ Individualized Education Program (IEP), moving away from the Continuous Learning Plans (CLP) that replaced IEPs when schools closed last March. CLPs were developed in coordination with students’ case managers 

Like general education, students with IEPs will be taught online with other students via teleconferencing as well as via independent learning.

“An example of that might be if your child has in their IEP 45 minutes of written language service, they might have 20 minutes of that synchronously with other students and they might have 25 minutes that’s independent work,” she said.

As of now, no in-person services will be available to students, but special education manager Joy Castillo said the district is working on ways to bring back students who need more help than others before schools reopen. Pending approval from public health officials, Castillo said the district would have students in mostly self-contained classrooms and prioritize those considered to have significant barriers accessing remote learning.

“Those would be completed with an IEP team and we would consider those students coming hopefully for some in-person services,” she said.

Evaluations for students with disabilities will also be conducted remotely using online assessments, said Jo Callaghan, director of psychology and counseling services. As with general education, itinerant providers — which includes audiologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech/language pathologists and school psychologists — will also use the learning management systems CANVAS and SeeSaw to hold class. SeeSaw was selected by district staff to be used for pre-K through second-grade students and Canvas was selected for third- through sixth-grade students.

“We want to make it as smooth as possible so that you only have one place to go to access services and to make sure that the classes are taking place for your children,” she said.

Instructors will also be monitoring students’ progress and documenting their engagement, said Resource Programs Manager Wil Johnson.

“We really can’t say enough about progress monitoring,” he said. “ That’s really our bread and butter — understanding how well students are engaging with the information,” he said.

Teachers will also host a CANVAS/SeeSaw course to instruct families on how to help their students navigate the learning management systems. For any additional support, Johnson said students’ case managers will be families’ first point of contact. Parents can also contact their students’ school principal or email the district at

Prior to the forum, families were asked to submit questions for the district’s special education administrators to answer. The question portion of the forum was moderated by Kate Pothier, manager of psychology and counseling services, who began by responding to several questions asking when students will be assigned a case manager.

Assistant Superintendent Geaslend said teachers are still negotiating their contracts for the new year and there is no way to assign case managers at this time. However, she added it’s possible students may have the same case manager as last year.

In response to a request for an update on whether Alderwood Early Childhood Center services will be available, Geaslen said all district services will begin remotely, but the district’s Information Technology Department is setting up access to Chromebook and SeeSaw.

“It is not lost on us that remote learning for our littlest learners is not the most effective way to do business,” she said. “That is a group that we want to get (back) in-person as soon as we can.”

When asked how students requiring itinerant services like physical or occupational therapy would be supported, Callaghan said instructors would work remotely with families to provide guided practice through online teleconferencing until authorized to return to in-person services.

Callaghan then addressed questions about the evaluation process and if testing to determine whether a student needs special services would be available during remote learning. According to Callaghan, the district has already begun establishing a team that is discussing ways to continue to provide evaluations.

“We are putting that as a priority to get to those families that are waiting,” she said. “We’re also looking at…what’s the most effective way for us to find out whether we need to do an evaluation or not and we may be moving forward with more evaluations because it makes more sense to make that happen.”

Families that signed up for student evaluations in March could hear back from the district by the second week of September at the latest, Callaghan said.

For students in the VOICE Program, which aims to help students with intellectual disabilities seek employment opportunities in the community, Special Education Manager Castillo said they will start with remote learning and staff are developing a schedule in line with the program. Staff will first start by matching students’ work experience with their current high school schedule.

“So, they will still have class periods throughout the day, with a virtual work adjustment experience,” she said.

Castillo also said the staff are looking at prioritizing students in their last year with the program and possibly placing them in jobs in the spring.

For students needing access to assistive technology, Callaghan said staff would first refer to the student’s IEP and additional services would be accessed through the student’s case manager, when assigned.

Though primarily serving students with special needs, itinerant services also provide social-emotional support to all students, including general education. Speaking to the overall need to provide social-emotional support, Callaghan said staff will focus on engaging students to get them excited about attending classes online.

Itinerant support staff will also be working with general education teachers to help them provide a virtual environment for students where they can feel supported. During the first week of the school year, Callaghan said teachers will place a heavy focus on social-emotional learning.

“We’re establishing routines,” she said. “We’re making sure everybody gets their name said every session, we’re making sure when they’re doing work, they find it highly engaging and relevant to them, and we’re making sure when kids go off the live meeting, they have an optimistic closure.”

Some parents of students at greater risk of having difficulties with distance learning asked why they aren’t being prioritized and have to wait to return to in-person learning. Mara Marano-Bianco, the district’s student health services manager, said staff have been working with public health officials to find the best way for students to be reintegrated into classrooms. However, she added that it’s contingent on the coronavirus transmission rates in the area.

“As our community transmission rates decrease, we will then be able to reopen our schools,” she said. “Typically, we are looking at 25 positive (tests) within a population of 100,000 to be able to even consider going (to the hybrid learning model).”

The last question asked was what school schedules would look like and how students would know when they will be receiving special education services. Referring to the draft schedules the district released earlier this month, Geaslen said the hybrid learning model — which leaves Wednesdays free for independent learning — could offer teachers a chance to provide special education services.

“I believe that you will see some especially designed instruction from special education on Wednesdays,” she said. “Wednesday’s aren’t completely defined yet, but in (the draft schedules) that will be an opportunity.”

–By Cody Sexton

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