February 11, 2021

In the spring of 2020, our school went completely online with no grades given and no attendance taken. However, the district—and federal government—expected speech-language pathologists (and other special education staff) to get up and running immediately and fully meet IEP mandates. Many of us felt immense stress and worked during summer break to make up sessions.

For the 2020–2021 school year, our district gave parents the option of either full online or hybrid education. The online option gives students daily synchronous classes. Weekly hybrid education for elementary students includes four half-days onsite and one half-day of virtual instruction and independent learning. Hybrid education for middle and high school students includes in-person instruction two days per week, remote learning two days per week, and half-day tutorial/office hours the fifth day. Special students in self-contained classes attend school five days a week, either in-person or virtually, with one late start day.

If hybrid students stay home on their in-person days or hours, they can log into their class(es). General and teachers present live and online classes simultaneously.

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Overcoming scheduling challenges

This model posed several challenges for SLPs. At the beginning of the school year, my colleagues and I discussed speech-sound production sessions: how to best maximize the visuals and the acoustics through required mask use on campus. We came up with several creative solutions: outdoors at a safe distance with no masks (living in Southern California helps); indoors with plexiglass barriers; virtual, even if the student was on campus; or a combination, depending on the student’s needs. The district eventually provided face shields for the SLPs. The district mentioned providing clear masks for our students, but those have yet to materialize.

Scheduling—never an easy task in the best of times—became even more difficult in this hybrid model. The school day is shorter than pre-pandemic, but caseloads—with required IEP minutes—remain the same. At first, I tried grouping in-person students together and online students together. When possible or necessary, students attended sessions on their “off” day. These groupings didn’t always work. And even when they did work, “live” students often stayed home from school and logged in virtually. I needed to quickly adapt.

I now hold all my group sessions on Zoom, sharing my screen with live and online students. All students have school-issued devices—tablets or Chromebooks—so I require even my live students to bring their devices. In-person students turn off the sound to prevent feedback, so I need to repeat what they say for virtual students to hear. This approach lets me easily give control to various students to spin virtual spinners, annotate slides, or type in responses. Ideally, I would have a good external mic on my table to pick up everyone’s voices, but that isn’t currently available.

Hybrid lesson planning

Lesson eventually became easier as I became more familiar with online resources and developed my own template for virtual presentations. Recently, the district agreed to use some of the MediCal (California Medicaid) money SLPs generate to purchase each full-time SLP a subscription of their own. I’m part-time and did not get this perk, but colleagues chose programs such as Everyday Speech for social-emotional skills, Ultimate SLP for  games and activities, SLP Toolkit for caseload management, and SLP Now for  materials and mini-courses. Of the digital resources, I tend to use Ultimate SLP and Boom Cards. I have always used  either Google Slides or PowerPoint, so I continued presenting most sessions using slides with supplemented materials such as books or cards.

We still deal with barriers, primarily with online students. Teachers can’t require students to turn their cameras on, so I struggle to get them to turn on their cameras during our sessions. They also sometimes say their sound doesn't work, so they need to use the chat box instead of speaking, significantly slowing down the pace of the group. Background noise from online students can distract everyone and muting/unmuting slows things down, which can make getting through a lesson plan challenging.

Service delivery is different. In group sessions I like to incorporate choral responses, and partner sharing, both of which are difficult in a simultaneous hybrid model. Despite progress, I rarely get through as much of a lesson as I did before COVID-19 struck.

They say things will never be quite the same, and this is definitely a unique learning experience. When I started 40 years ago, I never would have imagined how I’d be serving students in-person and online simultaneously. Am I being effective? It’s hard to say. Due to the barriers, I rarely get as much target practice in a lesson, but I do see progress. Is it difficult? Yes, but it is doable. Am I enjoying the work? It’s challenging, but I find creativity in problem-solving, and I still get to connect with my students even from afar.

Francine Wenhardt, MS, CCC-SLP, contracts with Tustin Unified schools in southern California. She also teaches at Chapman University and serves as ASHA’s California State Education Advocacy Leader. She’s an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Groups 1, Language Learning and Education, and 16, School-Based Issues. [email protected]

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