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Special Ed Leaders: Tech Has Proven Beneficial Post-Pandemic

Special education professionals say the increasing use of technology in schools has, in some cases, helped by making families more involved and giving students a digital environment in which they feel comfortable.

If the COVID-19 pandemic made school challenging across the board, the struggles of converting to digital or hybrid classrooms proved even greater for special education teachers and students, like in Marin County, Calif. Now over two years into the pandemic, many special education leaders have seen how technology has affected their field and, by and large, they are finding it both an improvement and a challenge.

The Council for Exceptional Children is a Virginia-based international organization that advocates for policies, standards and professional development related to children with special needs. CEC's Associate Executive Director for Professional Affairs Laurie VanderPloeg said in an email to Government Technology that the use of technology for special ed instruction has made many families more involved, to the benefit of students.

“It has increased opportunities for effective communication with families, increased family awareness of the child’s need and their new role in supporting outcomes,” VanderPloeg wrote. “It has helped us move from a status quo system of providing instruction and support to the development of a new way of delivering instruction and new ways students can learn.”

Prior to the pandemic, there had already been a push to direct learning for students with special needs into a more digital space, and some experts have said that doing so in the early stages of development could benefit all students. At the Kings County Office of Education in Central California, Program Manager Courtney Coelho said her county didn’t use distance learning before the pandemic, but since being thrust into it due to school closures, she has seen a benefit for special education students.

“Parents were actually part of the classroom and an active participant in their child's learning,” Coelho told Government Technology, although she added that using remote technology to engage students with severe disabilities remains a challenge. What made it an easier transition was when a student who went from in-school instruction to distance learning kept the same teacher. Those who changed teachers in the transition had a harder time adapting, she said.


Student mental health has been a hot-button issue since schools have, for the most part, returned to in-class learning following pandemic-related closures. A number of ed tech companies have recently partnered to address student mental health, and the nonprofit Chiefs for Change released a tool this year to study outcomes of support systems for K-12 students. At PresenceLearning, an ed tech company that provides special education and other behavioral and mental health services for schools, CEO Kate Eberle Walker said teletherapy affords the individual support some kids need to make in-person learning work.

“Having more technology in the classroom allows for more differentiation, allowing children to learn alongside each other while still each getting the support that they individually need,” Eberle Walker told Government Technology. “With the growth in teletherapy post-pandemic, you can have children with a wider range of needs together in the building and pull them out for time with a specialist via teletherapy.”

PresenceLearning recently partnered with Highlights to expand a digital library to better support special education and therapy goals for K-7 students. The name of the game is evolving and adapting. That’s what most schools and school districts did during the pandemic, including New Hampshire-based Spaulding Academy & Family Services, an organization that provides learning services to children with special needs in states across New England.

The academy's Digital Learning Specialist Charley Suter said it provided Chromebooks and Wi-Fi hotspots to numerous students; sent packages home to augment the digital curriculum with hands-on learning; and set up daily live lessons and, in many cases, individual live video sessions between teachers and students or families to provide additional support. Spaulding continued serving students via live lessons and other creative strategies throughout the pandemic, Suter said. The academy also provided one-on-one paraeducators with tools to connect live to their students and built a parent help website featuring walk-through videos and step-by-step instructions for how to access all portions of the academy’s digital curriculum.

“The combination of greater access to and awareness of tech tools, along with the increased tech capability and creativity among educators, has pushed us forward into the 21st century, and those benefits go directly to our students,” Suter told Government Technology.


Eberle Walker said she believes that classroom technology is wholly helping special education students. She said that technology is how kids are comfortable and how they communicate, adding that it allows them to open up — particularly in a teletherapy session — in ways that they simply wouldn’t in a face-to-face setting.

“Our mental health counselors say that it takes fewer sessions to progress a relationship with a child in online sessions versus face-to-face. We need our kids to feel safe opening up, and talking through technology is more natural for them,” she said.

VanderPloeg, however, believes the benefits of technology aren't as clear cut. She said technology has increased access to the curriculum and specialized support because it can be designed, tailored and delivered to meet individual needs. It has also increased opportunities for families to be more involved in the education process, giving them a deeper understanding of their child’s needs and how best to support them. But she said there needs to be equitable access to the technology, Internet and trained personnel in order to maximize learning for all children.

VanderPloeg said districts need to be intentional about providing professional learning opportunities for all stakeholders on how to identify appropriate devices, how to provide instruction, how students will learn and interact with devices, innovative ways to engage students in a virtual learning environment, and how to collect data on results and outcomes to track progress.

“Lack of district support in these areas has contributed to a high attrition rate for staff due to challenging working conditions, lack of resources and training, lack of recognition for efforts, among others,” she said.

For such purposes, CEC has a division on Innovations in Special Education Technology that focuses on research, practitioner development and development of resources.

More than anything, many special education leaders agreed their students need consistency and stability, no matter the learning model.

“They have been through so much instability, all of this makes it harder for students to learn and many have fallen behind," Eberle Walker said. "Technology can provide a couple of things that really make a difference.”
Giovanni Albanese Jr. is a staff writer for the Center for Digital Education. He has covered business, politics, breaking news and professional soccer over his more than 15-year reporting career. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Salem State University in Massachusetts.