Teaching in a Time of Crisis Highlights the Need for New Standards

Distance learning. Cheerful little girl using laptop computer studying through online e-learning system

The morning of March 12, 2020 at the school where I had just started student teaching, teachers were directed to prepare 10 days’ worth of learning material for students in anticipation of the schools being closed for a period of two weeks due to the coronavirus. This was initially hoped to be a brief interlude—like an extended spring break—and while it was expected that students might or might not complete their learning activities at home, any minor losses in progress would surely be made up when the students returned to school in early April.

As time went on and it was clear that school could not resume as planned, decisions had to be made about remote learning—what it would look like, what expectations could be placed on students, and many other big and small decisions. In special education, these decisions have the legal considerations of students’ IEPs. Compliance with IEPs is evidenced in data collection and benchmark assessments, and the procedures to collect data and administer assessments must be consistent for validity.

When children are not in the classroom for an extended period, there is a struggle to collect meaningful goals-related data to meet the students’ IEP requirements, as well as to meet the evolving expectations of state and local administration. Remote learning must be defined for all students with IEPs factoring in computer/internet access, parental involvement, teacher tools and skills, and ability of related service providers to meaningfully comply with IEP requirements.

As a legal document, an IEP that includes academic, functional, or behavioral goals requires data pertaining to those goals collected in a valid manner. IEPs that contain provisions for related services for a specified amount of time per day, week, or month require data collection as well as the presumption of the service provider’s physical presence with the student, apart from consulting minutes. In a remote learning paradigm, teachers and related service providers can potentially see students on a computer or phone screen, or a recorded video (if parents and staff have the devices and internet access). However, services cannot be provided in the same manner or for the same length of time as when the student, teacher, or related service provider is physically present as well as the materials needed to deliver instruction or therapies. Compliance with IEPs is a major challenge because of these above-named factors. It may happen in the future that new IEP case law will determine long-term distance learning situations.

Federal, state, and school district expectations have, by necessity, evolved to meet the challenges of extended remote learning. Still, the barriers of unequal access to resources, complicated family situations, and the understanding that parents can’t be expected or required to imitate services provided by education and therapeutic professionals run up against the reality that, without any meaningful learning for an extended period, children’s academic and developmental progress will regress.

School districts, individual teachers, and related services providers have made great efforts to utilize resources on hand and access new ones to the greatest extent possible, within budgets and other parameters. Apps that can be used on smartphones, for example, can be widely used as most adults (and most young people by middle school) have a smartphone. Video chats and emails can also be accessed on smartphones even without computers in the home. In Early Childhood Education, where I was student teaching, maintaining a positive and engaged relationship with parents was crucial.  By necessity, parents must facilitate access to learning materials if the children are going to participate in remote learning.

Whether for a short-term weather-related snow day, a long-term pandemic, or as an alternative learning model, remote learning is now part of educational practice. Remote learning therefore needs standards in delivery systems across districts, states, and the country in order to ensure that students have equal acce

Nuala Benisek is in the final semester of the teacher preparation program at Northern Illinois University, pursuing an MS.Ed. in special education, with an LBS1 endorsement.


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