Did you ever imagine you would teach virtually prior to 2020? With an onslaught of concerns, from student engagement to internet security on platforms such as Zoom, educators find themselves struggling to keep it all together, meet deadlines, and plan for the difficult task of delivering material such as chemistry via distance learning. Now pause and consider this from the student’s perspective. Imagine that the student is battling a life-threatening, degenerative disease or healing from a highly invasive, immobilizing surgery. This is the reality for thousands of Texas public education students who qualify for homebound education services each year.
Homebound instruction is an option when a public school student misses 20 or more days of an academic school year due to health issues that prevent them from attending on campus. It is one of the most restrictive environments in which to learn and must be approved by a committee of educators, administrators, and parents with documented medical input from a licensed physician. While there is no typical homebound case, the majority of students requesting homebound services present with multiple disabilities both physical, such as blindness or deafness, and cognitive, such as dyslexia or intellectual disabilities. These students thrive when working one-on-one in a homebound setting with a teacher who brings assistive and adaptive technology to the home to support the instruction. However, most homebound students are learning remotely with their homebound teacher at this time due to distancing made necessary by COVID-19. The risk simply continues to be too great to meet in person.
One silver lining to this challenging situation is that most special education students served in homebound have experience using some sort of technology for communication. According to Jennifer Roland, freelance writer for the International Society for Technology in Education, “This type of differentiated instruction is especially important within the special education setting, where students who have special needs may not be able to consume the traditional paper-based lessons still used in many classrooms.” The likelihood that these students will need to remain at home for an extended period of time seems probable due to the repeated spikes of COVID-19. It is imperative that school districts continue to invest in adaptive technologies and appropriate professional learning. Some examples of these technologies are screen readers for visually impaired students, FM systems for deaf students, communication switches such as a Partner Four or BIGmack buttons, and more advanced technology such as Tobii Dynavox, which includes communication software and web access that may be manipulated by touch screen or eye gaze. Homebound teachers and ISDs are able to deliver these materials to students for home use.
Homebound teachers who work in counties where entering the home is still a sizable risk are charged with bringing the classroom to the student. While students can meet through online chat services for lectures and utilize breakout rooms, there are exciting possibilities for giving students more of an in-class experience. The platform Swivl allows teachers to place a tablet on a Swivl unit, wear a lanyard tracker, and record lessons while walking around the room, using white boards, performing experiments, or reading aloud. Then the lesson is recorded and emailed to students. Users can download the videos and embed them in Canvas or other learning management systems. Teachers can be trained to use Swivl in 10 steps, and the payoff is worth the time invested. Watching a student’s face light up when they see their classmates and teachers is priceless. Bringing the classroom environment to the home is the primary goal of homebound educators. Reminding students that they are missed at school and still members of their campuses can help medically fragile students have a positive experience while navigating an illness.
It is critical now more than ever to design lessons tailored to the needs of each homebound student and in doing so consider all the ways to ease the process for families. Educators need to assess the hardware and software needs, as well as their access to the internet. One way to address lack of connectivity is by using district- and corporate-funded mobile hot spots. Educators also need to provide synchronous and asynchronous sessions for medically fragile students. Often, these students need to review content because their memories are affected by medicines and treatments. While transcripts and closed captioning are necessary and helpful, utilizing appropriate, individualized technology for students with special needs can go a long way in meeting the rules set forth by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The IDEA is a four-part piece of federal legislation written to ensure students with a disability are provided with “free, appropriate public education” that is designed to address individual needs.
Yet even with the most advanced technology at home, many students require assistance in using it. Candice Keller, Arlington ISD elementary alternative curriculum teacher, emphasizes that “the best virtual experience results from what kind of assistance students have at home. This could be parents, other relatives, or a full-time nurse.” Keller utilizes an array of technology in her classroom including iPads and digital whiteboards such as the Epson Brightlink that allow students to manipulate information with a digital pen. She also finds it beneficial to engage her students with apps that give an auditory response such as Groovepad and Verbal Me. Often, her students log in to a virtual session and require another adult to help navigate them through the platform such as Canvas or Seesaw. Keller finds that Zoom is most engaging for her students due to its grid display, adding that, “the platforms we use will make or break a lesson.”
Looking forward, the special education homebound community would benefit from a robust system of technology training for teachers, parents, and other caretakers.
Best practices for special education students learning from home include a multitude of educational materials being brought into the home to maximize learning potential. Education technology has evolved to produce portable, engaging platforms that can be used from outside the school campus, allowing homebound teachers to deliver a more meaningful learning experience. Those connections not only benefit the students but also recognize their families as partners in education and help build the culture and climate of a campus.
Stephanie Hudson began teaching in 1995 and currently teaches for the homebound services department in Arlington ISD. Prior to teaching homebound students, Stephanie taught fourth, fifth, and sixth grades and organized several clubs on her campuses, including Books for Breakfast and Stargazers Club. She served as local unit president for Arlington ATPE from 2011–2020 and is now the local unit treasurer. She is currently completing her master’s degree in education technology leadership at Lamar University.
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