HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. — Returning to school this fall may present unique challenges for some students with IEPs, or Individualized Education Plans. Tampa Bay area school districts are addressing how they’ll continue to support those students during the pandemic, whether in-person or online.
“He has a very diverse array of disabilities, but they’re considered invisible disabilities that most people who’d meet him would think he’s like any other typical child,” said Jennifer Rogers.
Rogers’ 16-year-old son, Daniel, is a sophomore in an Exceptional Student Education (ESE) program in Hillsborough County Public Schools.
Rogers explains Daniel’s IEP lays out what services, accommodations and modifications his school will provide to help meet his needs at the level of his peers. He’s received occupational, speech, and counseling therapies through school; however, the pandemic brought new difficulties when schools were forced online this spring, worrying Rogers for the new school year.
“The teachers were trying to scramble, not used to the technology, trying to get every child set up with the appropriate laptop,” said Rogers. “Many of his classmates don’t have laptops, they don’t have WiFi.”
“There’s no guidebook for this,” said Hillsborough County ESE teacher Caitlin Cook. “There’s no class I took in college for how to teach in a pandemic.”
ESE teachers like Cook quickly pivoted in the spring to support their students and parents over the phone and through video. Cook says they’re ready to do it again this fall.
“There were instances where I would reach out to parents and say ‘Hey, how’s this working for you? Is this working? should we do this differently?'” said Cook.
Local school districts are preparing, too. In its re-opening plan, Pinellas County Schools laid out measures from cohorting students, frequent cleaning for sensory equipment if used, and face shields in instances like speech therapy.
For eLearners in Hillsborough County, the district says the IEP team will meet to make sure the district’s online program is individualized for each student in the eLearning environment. It also says “special education and related services as identified in the IEP during eLearning may be provided in a variety of ways including the use of telephone calls, instructional support materials, internet based or virtual lessons and/or virtual therapies, and other available distance-based learning approaches.”
“ESE teachers are incredibly resilient,” said Cook. “They’re incredibly great problem solvers, and that’s what they do. They put their heads together and try to figure out how to make the situation work.”
ESE teachers stress talking to your district or specific teacher if you have questions heading into the new school semester. Hillsborough County Schools also explained it's committed to providing high-quality education to all learners no matter the teaching model during the COVID-19 crisis.
“Communicate, transparency,” said Rogers. “We’re all struggling. One day we’re at this extreme, then we have something conflicting and contradictory to that. I get that, let’s be fluid.”