COVID-19: Tele-Therapies Under Pressure

With the coronavirus shuttering schools across the country, students with special needs are bearing a disproportionate amount of the burden. It’s one thing to learn your ABCs in the online classroom, but not even a high-speed internet can make up for certain therapies children with disabilities usually get in a one-on-one setting.

According to a recent article in Education Week, “the sudden shift to online learning … will, at best, place new burdens on children with disabilities and their families—and, at worst, lead to extended disruptions in services such as speech, occupational, and physical therapy.” And the size of this population is not insignificant:

Roughly 1.5 million students have diagnosed speech or language impairment, making it the second most prevalent disability category in the nation’s K-12 schools. That total doesn’t include a smaller, yet undetermined, number of students who receive physical and occupational therapy.

While the federal government does not track how many students receive tele-therapies in normal times, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the estimate could reach into the millions.

An Imperfect Solution

Most everyone agrees that even if children are able to access services, they will not look like what their IEPs called for. Therapy via tele-health brings a new set of challenges including technology issues, and therapists learning how to deliver services in real time.

University of Kansas special education professor, Sean Smith told Education Week, “compromises are going to have to be made.” That conclusion was borne out in a 2018 Department of Education study for the office of special education that found much of what happens in tele-therapy is “decidedly nontraditional when compared to a brick-and-mortar experience.”

It can feel a lot like the wild West according to those on the front lines:

At the end of March, at least a third of states had no laws or guidance for tele-therapy for speech and language services, according to the American Speech and Hearing Association. The association and other professional organizations, such as the American Occupational Therapy Association and the American Physical Therapy Association, have pushed for legislative solutions or sweeping executive orders from governors to ensure their members can work with students via distance learning. In states where there are not laws on the books, speech-language pathologists and therapists are flooding licensing boards with calls to ensure they can practice online.

Concluded one experienced speech therapist, “They deserve the best I can give, and I am scrambling to learn new tricks to be effective and productive.”