Despite the Emergency, All Still Means All
By Arkansas Department of Education Secretary Johnny Key
We are no doubt living in unusual times. When the decision was made more than a month ago to close Arkansas public schools to on-site instruction through April 17, we were cautiously optimistic that onsite instruction would resume before the end of the school year. COVID-19, however, had other plans, and while the effects of the virus eventually diminished any hope of returning to school, our educators responded quickly to counter the negative learning impact the COVID-19 crisis would have on students.
It’s no surprise that Arkansas’s teachers have found innovative ways to continue the learning process. You don’t have to look far to see the evidence. Many educators are reaching out to their students and parents on a daily basis. Some are holding virtual classroom sessions so their students can stay connected with them and with each other. School counselors are actively engaging their students, especially their seniors to offer words of encouragement and share the latest scholarship opportunities available.
This creativity has also extended beyond the school building and into parking lots and buses. Not only are buses being used to deliver meals and education assignments, many schools are expanding internet access to buses and school parking lots to allow students who don’t have connectivity at home the opportunity to complete classwork while still upholding social distancing best practices. Other schools have refocused funds to quickly purchase additional technology devices so students who don’t have internet access at home can have access to online learning resources.
All of these efforts, plus many more, demonstrate what we have quickly come to know: School is much bigger than the four walls of a traditional classroom. Learning can and does occur anywhere students and teachers connect in creative, comprehensive, and engaging learning activities. In today’s world, that just happens to be through computer screens, cell phones, and yes, via old-fashioned paper and pencil. While it’s not ideal, it’s not wrong. As I’ve said before, we can’t let perfect become the enemy of good.
While it’s important to stress that learning has not stopped, it’s equally as important to emphasize that learning for ALL students, especially for those with special needs, continues despite present circumstances. No doubt our present situation has its fair share of challenges for all students, but our teachers are more committed than ever before to ensure all students have access to the educational services they need to succeed.
Our commitment to these educators and students has not wavered either. While now is a time for flexibility, our dedication to education remains strong and secure. At this time, the federal government has not waived any requirements under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. All students, including the more than 76,000 students with disabilities, deserve a quality education, and we are working with schools to make sure that happens.
As schools continue remote learning, it is vital that they ensure that students with disabilities have equal access to education and support. IEPs remain in effect, and schools should, to the greatest extent possible, continue to provide the services identified in a student’s IEP. Schools are encouraged to consider ways to use distance learning and other alternative methods of instruction to meet their obligations to provide a free appropriate public education to students with 504 plans or Individualized Education Programs.
To help teachers and schools meet these objectives, the department has issued guidance and shared resources regarding special education instruction, which is available on the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education’s webpage: https://bit.ly/3a99scv. We also are staffing an Alternative Methods of Instruction hotline (1-833-353-6050) to answer AMI questions from districts, teachers, parents, and students.
While instruction through the rest of the school year is focused on core content, it also is essential that special education and general education teachers work together to ensure lessons are consistent and appropriately meet the needs of all students, no matter their current circumstances and access to technology.
This collaboration extends beyond the school level, though. Families and guardians play a critically important role in student learning on any given day, especially now and especially for students in need of special education services. The Division of Elementary and Secondary Education encourages all those responsible for the care and education of students to work together to build relationships that foster trust and wellbeing, then work together to ensure that educational expectations and goals turn into realities and accomplishments.
This also means that schools must make every effort possible to meet required timelines and hold IEP meetings virtually or by phone with parents to discuss student progress and determine appropriate education and services. This is critical, as it impacts the need for future supports to address potential learning loss during this time. When restrictions are lifted, schools and IEP teams should review student progress to determine whether or not adjustments are needed to the future education and services provided to students.
A month ago, I never thought we would live in a world where human contact is discouraged, school buildings would be closed, and a feeling of uncertainty would prevail. I always knew, however, that if the need arose, our educators would be ready for any situation. Not only did Arkansas’s educators refuse to hesitate, they quickly adjusted to the situation and made, as always, our students a top priority. There’s no doubt in my mind that together we will get through this and will be stronger than we were before. Together, we are overcoming challenges and exceeding expectations. Together, we ARE leading the nation in student-focused education.