Social Distancing Drives Innovation in Special Education Evaluations

Empty room at BASIS Charter School

Jamie Storm requested a special education evaluation for her daughter in February. She knew her child had ADHD, and hoped that a few simple classroom accommodations would allow the first grader to excel at BASIS North Central. It can be a long process, but Storm had high hopes that they would have a plan in place for the beginning of second grade. 

The school had 45 days to comply with Storm’s request to have her daughter evaluated. Before that window had passed, schools were closed. Storm assumed that this meant their evaluation would be put on hold, that they would re-start the long process in the fall, and that her daughter would spend another semester struggling to pay attention in class.

Social Distancing and Special Education Evaluations

March was not an easy month for any family in San Antonio, or anywhere in the country. For some, however, the disruption caused by the COVID-19 outbreak was compounded by the abrupt halt to a critical process: evaluation for special education services. 

As districts canceled school, many also halted the special education evaluation process, most of which is done in person with a specialist. This sounds like reasonable social distancing, perhaps, but it has critical consequences for students, who will now be out until at least May 4, per Governor Greg Abbott. 

While districts scramble to provide distance learning opportunities to students, families of special education students have been left without clear guidance as to what comes next for them. The U.S. Department of Education and the Texas Education Agency have both issued guidance to schools, informing them that the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) applies to distance learning as well, and that all services offered to the general population must be offered to students receiving special education with necessary accommodations and modification. Therapies and other services are also still—in theory—supposed to be happening. 

Those with existing IEPs have been told to wait while districts put plans into action. That’s frustrating enough, parents say, but for those without IEPs, the rest of the year could be lost, save what parents are able to offer at home. Speech therapy, occupational therapy, literacy coaching, and other targeted support will be delayed for months more after what has been, for many families, a long process already. 

AIM Offers Special Education Tele-evaluations

Not so fast (or slow), says Susan Houser of Assessment Intervention Management (AIM), a local special education services provider. Houser and the AIM team specialize in helping families access the free and appropriate public education to which the law entitles them. Her team immediately began to pivot to make tele-evaluation a possibility not only during COVID-19, but for the future. 

“There’s great opportunity on the horizon if we can just get to it,” Houser said. 

In the best of times, communities in rural areas have a more difficult time getting high quality educational screening for a reasonable price, Houser explained. They have to either rely on what is available—usually someone who is not certified or trained for the specific screening to identify learning differences—or hire someone to travel to the school from another community. The latter option could be cost prohibitive, Houser said, as many consultants charged for travel time, inflating the fee beyond affordability. Organizations like AIM try to help, but they can only be so many places at once. Houser said she would love to be able to fulfill requests out of East and West Texas where evaluation and special education services are particularly hard to come by. 

Suddenly, everyone feels the pain of rural districts. With cities in lock-down, no one has access to an in-person evaluation. Tele-evaluations “are our only choice,” Houser said. “How do we do it with ethics and high quality?” 

Partnering with Publishers and Schools for Tele-evaluations

Because remote evaluation for special education has always been automatically dismissed, Houser said, no one had put in the time to standardize it. The companies that produce the highly protected IQ and academic tests used in evaluations kept the products under lock and key, not only for proprietary reasons, Houser explained, but to protect the integrity of the results. Protocols had not been developed to ensure the virtually administered tests would be as reliable as those administered in person, controlling for the necessary variables. 

As a “small ship,” Houser said, her team was able to pivot quickly. Over the course of less than a month, AIM has developed a standardized tele-evaluation strategy. Houser said, “We’ve always done weird things that nobody else did. That’s our niche.” 

They’ve done so with the cooperation of test publishers Pearson, WPS, and Riverside, all of whom granted permission for their materials to be used virtually by AIM facilitators. “We’ve never had that before,” Houser said.

They then went to work creating protocols to insure the integrity of the evaluations. They reached out to the Office of Civil Rights and the Texas Education Agency to make sure that their procedures would not run afoul of regulations, and are in the process of figuring out how to deliver special education services virtually as well. Therapists and teachers will need to understand best practices, and how accommodations can be met using available technology. Virtual services will also create different scaling opportunities; AIM is procuring waivers to allow speech assistants to administer speech therapy virtually, to ease the load on therapists. 

The main hurdle right now is getting districts to agree. Private families make up some of AIM’s clientele, but their main clients are school districts and charter networks, who outsource evaluation services to AIM.

Special Education Evaluations Achieved

Storm got a call mid-March, announcing that the school would move forward with the special education evaluation. They went up to the shuttered campus, where they were given a health check and escorted to an empty classroom. The evaluator was in another room, and the evaluation moved forward virtually. So far, Storm said, she’s confident the new method is producing reliable results, “given the feedback from the tester so far.” 

Charters—like BASIS North Central, where Storm’s daughter is enrolled—have begun to sign on for tele-evaluations fairly quickly. Houser attributes this to the fact that, like AIM, they are small ships specifically designed to operate differently from larger systems. Districts educate more students with more variables, and it is more difficult to introduce new procedures into a large system. At the same time, now may be tele-evaluation’s best shot, Houser said, because with everyone in problem solving mode, systems are being forced to innovate in every realm, including special education. 

Houser is convinced that once tele-evaluation and consultation has proven effective, the change will pay off big time for districts.

Not every evaluation and service can be delivered remotely, Houser explained, but if some can, it frees up on-site providers for those that can’t. Districts still have plenty of special education services to figure out during the COVID-19 crisis, but Houser is hoping that this is both a burden eased and a lesson learned. 

Heart graphic and title "Towards a Kinder World: A Series on Special Education"

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About the Author

Bekah McNeel is a San Antonio-based education writer who focuses on equity, innovation, and social-emotional learning for publications such as The 74. Over the years, we have republished local education coverage from her Hall Monitor site, and last November she wrote for us a four-part series, “Punished, Not Served,” about unfair discipline for students with disabilities.

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