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Of the many challenges in moving schools online, special education is one of the biggest, which is why teachers and therapists are getting creative. NPR's Elissa Nadworny reports.
ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: When schools in Wilton, Conn., closed, Katie Miller had to transform her speech therapy sessions with elementary students onto the Internet. Miller has been with the district five years, and none of that was online. But in the last few weeks, she's had to build a sort of digital classroom. She sends me a link so I can see how it works.
KATIE MILLER: It functions pretty similarly to how I would do it in my classroom.
NADWORNY: She's using a software called PresenceLearning. There's a video chat component but also digital versions of the tools that Miller has always used to help her students communicate better. This week, she's working with her students on articulation and letter sounds. The software makes it into a game.
MILLER: Can you see the activity?
NADWORNY: She fills the screen with an activity grid. There are numbers one through six with words next to them.
MILLER: Put the dice in (ph).
NADWORNY: A die appears on screen.
MILLER: Just click the dice and it'll roll for you.
NADWORNY: I click the die, and it rolls and lands on the number two. I look for that number. It's the word urchin.
MILLER: OK. So we're working on ur (ph) sound. We're going to find it here at the beginning of the word in urchin.
NADWORNY: To make that sound, Miller says the tongue needs to come back and up. When the student gets the sound right, they can click the digital die again to try another word or sound. When schools first went to distance learning, parents and teachers were concerned that students with disabilities would fall through the cracks and not have their services available. But now...
KELLY GRILLO: We're seeing kids have services because people are being creative.
NADWORNY: Kelly Grillo works for Cooperative School Services and oversees special education at two school districts in Indiana. She's inspired by the way teachers have adapted. For example, she has a second-grader who is immobile and nonverbal. She and her team have been brainstorming ways he can use his family's smart speaker while he's at home. There's an occupational therapist Grillo works with that sent packets home detailing ways to grip a pencil. Included in the delivery - extra pencils. And it's not all high-bandwidth tools. For students who don't have access to good Internet, Grillo and her team, like lots of teachers, are leaning on old-fashioned phone calls and text messages.
GRILLO: It's really actually quite exciting a geek like me (laughter), things like, wow, this is actually changing a field to create access for kids with disabilities far beyond what anybody could imagine.
NADWORNY: Still, for many teachers and therapists, what they do is so intensely personal a computer just doesn't cut it. Joy Lawrence is a speech and language pathologist at the high school in Wilton, Conn. She says she's mostly video chatting with students.
JOY LAWRENCE: Fiercely - can you say that? Yeah.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: Fiercer (ph).
LAWRENCE: Try again.
NADWORNY: She loves being able to see her kids. But she says with this new innovation, there are still lots of limitations. For example, one of her tricks in person is to change the volume of her voice.
LAWRENCE: The softer your voice is when you're next to them, the more they pay attention, the more they listen. So you're, like, yelling into this speaker and your voice is echoing through the house. It's really difficult.
NADWORNY: Many of her students have autism or attention disorders. For them, eye contact and physical proximity is essential. But in this new normal, she says she's just doing the best she can.
LAWRENCE: You're watching me type.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: Yeah.
LAWRENCE: You're doing a great job. This is hard to do on a screen like this and sharing it with each other, right?
LAWRENCE: You're doing really well, though.
NADWORNY: Lawrence knows none of this can replace the personal one-on-one learning she can do at school. Her main hope is that these digital tools will help her maintain the relationships she's built with her students, so when they're back in school, whenever that ends up being, they can get right back to the hard work. Elissa Nadworny, NPR News.
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