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Building Engagement with Distance Learning

DL #29: Collaboration in the Trenches: Lessons Learned about Inclusive Technology During COVID

How did your district as a whole do in supporting student learning when school closed in the spring of 2020? Were leaders quick to leverage technology to provide distance learning on day one? Were they responsive to the learning needs of each and every learner? 

Looking back on those early days of remote learning, it is clear that there was a lot of variation in how school leaders took on the challenge of adapting inclusive education during COVID. Whereas some administrators immediately pivoted by using existing collaborative practices and technology know-how, other administrators decided to pause, reflect, organize, and then launch a remote learning program. Some administrators struggled to organize and found major barriers between special and general education technology implementation that were difficult to overcome, leaving students with limited access to instruction.

In this post, we highlight the work of Loudoun County Public Schools (LCPS) in Virginia in conjunction with the Center on Inclusive Technology and Education Systems (CITES). We show how their administrators made the most out of a challenging time by focusing on existing collaborative practice of teachers, specialists, and administrators to support continuity of learning for students with special needs such as a disability or English Language Learner.  LCPS has been working on connecting bridges across their departments for a long time, but COVID made the push more immediate and intense. When schools closed, district leadership took three immediate steps: 

  1. Curriculum supervisors from the LCPS Department of Instruction led interdisciplinary teams to curate information for families to use to support their child’s transition to distance learning. The team included academic content specialists and special education specialists because content and access are both important.
  2. Curriculum supervisors chunked resources into a “Continuity of Education” website organized by grade-band with accessibility supports highlighted across this site.
  3. Curriculum supervisors created a separate website specific to accessibility and special education support. The site was focused on providing families and educators with information about accessibility, content, support for specific student needs (for example, visual, hearing, etc.), and building alternate and augmented communication systems.  

As a result of these collaborative activities, families were able to readily access targeted resources critical to support their child’s individual learning needs during a time of remote schooling.  

In this video, Chris Bugaj, Assistive Technology Specialist of Loudoun County, discusses how professionals initially collaborated and organized to make learning accessible and usable for students with disabilities during COVID closures.

Lessons Learned from Loudon’s Leaders:

  • Always prioritize collaboration! LCPS’s leaders used collaborative structures and practices that were in place prior to COVID (for example, interdisciplinary teams) to ensure that distance learning was more inclusive. 
  • All means all. Loudon’s leaders ensured access for students with significant cognitive disabilities by bringing together grade-level, curriculum, and special education specialists to ensure accessibility for the widest range of learners, and especially those who may not have meaningful access due to language, communication, physical, or executive functioning needs.
  • Less is often more. Loudon’s leaders encouraged teams to provide curated resources so as to not overwhelm staff, teachers, and families. This “less is more” approach is important when supporting families and teachers of students with significant cognitive disabilities, who may be working with multiple teachers, therapists, and team members.
  • Unified resources support a unified education system.  As COVID continued to impact education delivery, LCPS redesigned these sites into a single page for easier access. Ideally, this information would be housed in under a general education instructional heading to highlight that access to instruction is universal and every teacher’s responsibility. 

Want to see more about what other districts are leading during COVID? Check out the CITES page for more stories of inclusive technology.

Author(s)

Elizabeth Hartmann, Ph.D.

Janet Peters

Deborah Taub, Ph.D.

Joy Zabala

Disclaimer: The information in this Brief is not an endorsement of any identified products. Products identified in this Brief are shared solely as examples to help communicate information about ways to reach the desired goals for students.

Distance Learning Series: DL #29, February 2021

  • Hartmann, E., Peters, J., Taub, D., & Zabala, J. (2021). Collaboration in the Trenches: Lessons Learned about Inclusive Technology During COVID (DL #29). TIES Center.

TIES Center is supported through a cooperative agreement between the University of Minnesota and the Research to Practice Division, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education (# H326Y170004). The Center is affiliated with the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) which is affiliated with the Institute on Community Integration (ICI) at the College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota. The contents of this report were developed under the Cooperative Agreement from the U.S. Department of Education, but do not necessarily represent the policy or opinions of the U.S. Department of Education or Offices within it. Readers should not assume endorsement by the federal government. Project Officer: Susan Weigert

The National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) leads the TIES Center partnership. Collaborating partners are the Arizona Department of Education, CAST, University of Cincinnati, University of Kentucky, University of North-Carolina–Charlotte, and the University of North Carolina–Greensboro.

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