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Building Engagement with Distance Learning

DL #9: Start Now to Plan for Students Transitioning Back to School

TIES Center Distance Learning Series

As the saying goes, the country is truly building the distance learning plane as we fly it. The change to distance learning has been very challenging for many students, families, and instructional teams. While schools and families did not have much notice, if any, to plan for distance learning, instructional teams have the opportunity and the responsibility to plan for successfully transitioning students with significant cognitive disabilities back into school. States are discussing what returning to school might look like and the possible timeframes. We don’t know exactly when that will be or what form it will take, but there are steps that we can take now to plan for that time so it goes as smoothly as possible for as many students as possible.

Relationships, relationships, relationships 

The relationships with students from before and during distance learning are the foundation for transitioning students back into school. Relationships between students and teachers, students and peers, and teachers and parents/families are foundational for effectively implementing distance learning and for having discussions about transitioning back into school. During distance learning, a team’s communication with their students and families should let them know that they matter and that their voices are heard. It shows that teachers care about them, how they are doing, and how they are weathering this dramatic change in their lives. 

All of the efforts during distance learning to build and sustain relationships with students and families by sending emails, dropping off materials, creating short videos, and using online platforms create the on-ramp for having important discussions about transitioning back to school. Staying connected is the basis for the mutual trust that will support communication and problem solving about how to re-engage the student with classes, friends, teachers, schedules, and rituals and routines.

Communication, communication, communication

The stronger the communication web during distance learning, the stronger the available connections for planning a student’s transition back to school. The communication web includes communicating with:

  • students to help them understand the changes that are forthcoming;
  • families about their concerns, desires, and updates on student needs, as well as to understand what the students are communicating to their families about the change; and
  • instructional team members to assure that everyone is connected and collaborating as planning moves forward.

Presuming competence is foundational for all planning. Move forward by presuming that students understand that something is changing...again...and that it will mean changes in how school looks for all students. This is particularly important for students who have receptive and expressive communication challenges. Provide students with information about the forthcoming changes through multiple means of representation. For example, teachers can write social stories that can be read to students. Educators and families can also add new vocabulary for emotions (e.g., excited, worried, happy, nervous) and for actions (e.g, social distancing, washing hands, wearing a mask) to low-tech or high-tech AAC devices to facilitate a means for them to express themselves. Provide them with the opportunity and appropriate support to express their questions and concerns. Assist them to work through any excitement or anxiety that emerges. Be particularly cognizant of students expressing their emotions about the change through new or expanded behaviors and collaborate with the families to support the children to use other ways to express themselves.

When the time is near for the change to being back in buildings to occur, re-engage with previously used visuals to talk about taking a bus again, school schedules, new teachers, a different locker, their peers, and activities. Add new visuals and teach about following safe procedures at school, such as washing hands, social distancing, changes to schedules, etc.

Similar to the importance of parent/family voice in navigating and individualizing distance learning, including the student's voice will be critical for smoothly transitioning back to school. Incorporate students in making meaningful choices about what their day will look like. Depending on the individual student’s needs, there will also be specific questions and concerns to problem-solve:

  • To what extent does the overall initial transition plan for all students work for individual students?
  • Where does the plan need to be further individualized?
  • What was learned during distance learning that helps to facilitate the transition back to school?
  • What can be learned from transitioning back to school after previous summer and winter breaks that can help guide this transition?

Also, consider that everything learned from this transition provides insights should a temporary change in how education is provided happen again in the future.

Data, data, data

A series of reflective questions “What? So What? Now What?” provides a way for framing the available data and using them to guide transition planning and decision making.

What? What are the facts? What do we know about student learning?

  • Data from before distance learning commenced: What are the data that you have regarding academics, behavior/social-emotional, communication skills, functional skills for each student before distance learning started? Review each student’s progress notes, progress monitoring data and work samples from the beginning of the school year until in-person school ended to create a picture of what were the gains and the rate of change that each student made during that period. This becomes the baseline for forward planning.
  • Data during distance learning: We know that data collection is challenging for many teachers and families, that the data will have gaps, and that it will be less systemized than previously. However, use what you have to make your best-informed determination of what each student is learning during distance learning. Be sure to capture information from the families about the skills that each student is learning and/or generalizing across environments during this period. Possible sources of data during distance learning include:
    • student work samples
    • online apps and platforms (such as IXL math completed, audiobooks or reading platforms, educational games, BrainPop or BitsBoard Pro activities)
    • family data logs and updates, and
    • data teachers collect during all contacts with a student

So What? What do the data tell us?

  • What do all of the data convey about what, where, and how student learning occurred during the school year?
  • Are there data that convey that skills were gained during the period of distance learning? (In addition to academics, consider the generalization of skills, level of independence, and the use of technology)
  • Are there any data that convey a loss of skills during this period?
  • What do the data convey about gaps in learning that persist or maybe are now evident?
  • How did different ways of teaching impact student learning? What worked? What did not work?
  • What questions cannot be answered and need more data once school starts?

Now What? What are the next steps?

  • From the array of data, what areas do you feel need to be prioritized before the transition period to prepare the student for returning to school, during the transition period as new/old routines are re-established and moving on after the routines are re-established?
  • How will you continue to blend what was learned during distance learning about integrating technology to enhance student learning, connections with parents/families, and generalization of skills between school and home to accelerate student learning?

The plans for reopening school, whether fully, gradually, or with modified schedules, will look different across the states. Teachers will need to take their state and district plans and translate them into supporting individual students. Regardless of the specifics, the key components of the relationships, communication, and data will be foundational for all planning.

Looking for more resources on how to plan and collaborate during COVID? Check out our DL post on Dealing with Uncertainty.

Distance Learning Series: DL #9, May, 2020

All rights reserved. Any or all portions of this document may be reproduced without prior permission, provided the source is cited as:

  • Ghere, G. (2020). Start now to plan for students transitioning back to school (DL #9). TIES Center.

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.

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: 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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