Delivery of Pediatric and School-Based Therapy and Special Education via Distance Learning/Teletherapy: Where Do We Stand in the COVID-19 Era?

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by: Heidi Kay, Partner and CEO of PediaStaff

You are an SLP, OT, PT, School Psychologist, or School-Based Social Worker, following instructions to stay home.   The TV and internet are flooded with stories about employees working from home, having meetings on Zoom, and general education teachers nationwide, providing distance and online instruction during their quarantines.

As you know, PediaStaff specializes in the placement of Pediatric and School-Based therapists, clinicians and Special Educators.    Over the past weeks we have been checking in with all our clients – at schools, clinics, and early intervention providers, to find out how they are operating during this unique and unprecedented time.   The short answer is:   It’s a huge patchwork.

“Everyone is approaching the situation differently.   No two situations are exactly alike, and there is no one-size fits all solution,” said Keith Adams, Partner and VP of Recruitment and Operations at PediaStaff.   “In some states, districts in the same city are even doing things differently.

The PediaStaff experience alone demonstrates that states and school districts are approaching this unprecedented time differently.   And of course, it makes perfect sense.  Our nation is large and diverse.  Some counties and states have very few cases, and then of course you have large cities like New York and Los Angeles where the pandemic has gained an insidious foothold.

District-wide school closures are affecting all fifty states.   Some states and districts are canceling spring instruction altogether.     Many states are turning to e-learning so children can finish their spring semesters without loss of instruction.  In some cases, general education students are being served through packets sent home via email from their teachers.  Other states are asking their teachers to teach however they need to so that the grading period can finish without further interruption.   In Florida, for example, teachers are back to work and students are receiving instruction via YouTube lecture, discussion through Microsoft Teams, emailed assignments and more.   The obstacles are numerous  and often the disadvantaged students are getting left behind.

Most of the talk out there in cyberspace surrounds the general education population.   But what about Special Education and Pediatric Therapy?

In the school setting, Special Education services are typically covered by the U.S. Department of Education’s Individuals with Disabilities Act, (IDEA), which ensures that all children have equal access to education.   Access to computers and internet is not the only issue.  Distance/online learning is also problematic for those students who depend on their teacher or therapist’s physical presence for their optimum educational experience. That is why, some states, have decided to stay away from online learning entirely  The reason why boils down to two words: Access and equity.

Many schools are stepping in deliberately and carefully.   Last month, The US Department of Education came out with a five-page fact sheet instructing districts NOT to let federal law prevent them from offering online services.  A few days, later Secretary DeVos issued a press release expressing disappointment that this guidance was being construed as a directive not to continue special education.   However, disability advocates were not appeased and say that the $2 trillion coronavirus law could give the DOE the power to waive special education rules.  Only time will tell whether schools decide to take the plunge to try to serve as many students as possible, or if they will resist distance learning entirely and instead pledge to uphold the civil rights of disadvantaged and special needs students. There is no easy answer, for in either case some children will lose out.

Outside the classroom, pediatric therapy clinics and early intervention providers are also affected.  “Shelter in Place” orders are in effect in some version or another in 42 states to date.   But just like in the education setting, there are equity issues that must be considered. Those clients covered by Medicaid, may not have the capability to get online.  And, just like in the school setting, some pediatric therapy is just not suited to teletherapy.  It’s pretty challenging, for example, to work effectively on a pencil grip with an OT client unless the therapist can guide the child in person.  That said, this excellent blog post on The OT Toolbox points out, that there are a large variety of ways OT can be adapted to teletherapy.  The same goes for Physical Therapy, as this article about UC Davis details.

The links below shed light what is, and what is not happening during this new COVID-19 era, by therapy discipline.    The data in each link changes daily.   We have provided links to the most upper level resource on each page in the event that information is modified as time goes on.


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