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5 Essential Areas of Focus for Special Education Programs This Fall

special education
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While technology can help improve efficiency and effectiveness in your special education program, managing the balance between access and legal sensitivity requires thoughtful attention to detail, says Chris Draper, an IEP consultant who recently co-presented “Future Proofing for SPED Supports” with Susan Gentz, a public policy expert, at the Future Proofing Your District conference.

District leaders are planning for different scenarios when students return this fall—on campus, remote, and hybrid. Whether special education students are on or off campus, Draper and Gentz recommend important areas of focus in special education programs to help get the year off to a good start.

1. Data Privacy. Cybersecurity is important for the complex interactions and flow of data supporting special education. Creating the flow of data, knowing which third-party apps are involved, who has access to the data, and how the intended user gets the data they need to deliver to the right recipients is the most important part of data security. 

2. Data Breaches. Whether teachers and students are on or off campus this fall, it’s important to understand whether software is being used correctly. The largest percentage of data breaches occur due to human error. Of course districts want to keep risk low, but it’s unrealistic to think you will be able to protect against every attack. Avoiding email transmissions of data and reducing data access are a good start.

3. IEP Meeting Software. Virtual meetings will likely continue in the future as it provides an efficient option. But any technology needs to manage meeting access and visibility to ensure trust and confidentiality. Are district personnel adequately trained to use the software? In particular, can they manage a complicated conversation without face-to-face physical cues? 

4. Digital Dispute Avoidance. Draper says that miscommunication is more likely to arise in virtual IEP meetings than during face-to-face ones. “The virtual world requires different skills to disputing avoidance than face-to-face,” he said. “Finding district staff who can handle online dispute avoidance is important.”

5. Assessing Student Needs. It is possible that students will not be able to return to school in the fall as planned, or that students return to campus and then find that schools need to close again due to a resurgence in the pandemic. While the loss of spring assessments puts educators in the dark, it’s important to get students re-integrated quickly into school. Use diagnostic assessments, identify the most vulnerable, and prioritize their needs, Gentz advises. “Try to rethink assessment by finding some flexible alternatives to what you’ve been using,” she said. Also consider the possibility of increasing mental health supports for some students. “This has been a traumatic time for some students and families,” Gentz said. “Take advantage of funding in the CARES Act for mental health and social support.”

The American Enterprise Institute has provided a Back-to-School Blueprint that districts may find helpful as they plan for the new school year. Although there are no waivers from the U.S. Department of Education on the services schools are required to provide to students with disabilities, there is some flexibility in federal funding this year that allows districts to blend funding sources to meet their needs during this extraordinary time.