What to Consider About Online Service Delivery

If you’re weighing the benefits and downsides of contracting with online therapy providers for supporting students in special education, here are some factors to consider, based on the recent experiences of several administrators whose school districts have used remote delivery to serve students.

» Public- and private-sector options. Consider the particular special education staffing needs of your district when seeking a teletherapy provider. Besides PresenceLearning and eLuma, the two market leaders, some state consortiums, such as BOCES in New York, offer a teletherapy option. Other proprietary providers include Global Teletherapy and DotCom Therapy, based in Madison, Wis., with about 130 clinicians mostly operating on a regional basis.

» Cost surprises. Online services may not save as much as anticipated because services provided in a school setting usually require an aide or paraprofessional to accompany the student.

» Tech setup. The process of setting up the necessary technology for remote delivery can be cumbersome and time-consuming. Build in enough time for training and on-boarding. Kristy Bone, director of special education for the Pickens County, S.C., schools, hadn’t expected it would take the firm they chose to deliver remote services would need nearly two months to set up its communication systems.

» Data sharing. Administrators must decide how the online therapists, who are not employees of the district, can access the school system’s data system to share information about students. “You need to figure out system access, and who’s responsible for what pieces,” says Brook Mosley-Schubert, with the Arizona Virtual Academy and Insight Academy.

» Timing the rollout. Cheryl Hubbard-George, director of the Office of Exceptional Children in South Carolina’s Florence County School District 3, recommends starting with therapists serving a small number of special education students at first. Gauge how it works with school staff and students before diving in too deeply.

 Most-fitting candidates. Evaluate your special education population to determine which students, based on their diagnoses and individualized education plans, are likely to be good candidates for receiving online therapy.

“We were very intentional in how we decided which students would work with [PresenceLearning’s speech-language] therapists,” says Leanne Desjardins, director of special education with the North Country Supervisory Union in Newport, Vt. “We started with older students.” The junior high school and senior high school also access occupational therapy services, and the district is in its second year of contracting for psychological and achievement testing.

» Staffing breakdowns. Most online therapists are professionals who perform their jobs and connect well with students and parents. But some districts have been frustrated when online therapists fail to log on at the appointed time to provide the requested services.

» Initial pushback. You’ll receive grumbling or outright opposition from staff and parents to the notion of remote service delivery. Having a strategic communication plan in place will help to address their concerns. Staff and parent buy-in are critical for success.

Speech-language therapist Kaitlin Hurley, based in a suburb of Rochester, N.Y., who works for PresenceLearning, goes out of her way to be reassuring to school-employed staff. “People can feel threatened,” she says, so she lets the on-site professionals know “we’re there to support them and make their jobs easier so they can be more productive and lessen their caseload. We’re a resource and supportive tool allowing them to have more meaningful therapy happen.”

» Coordination. Assign a staff member to handle coordination among your school-based therapists, the online providers and the company. Do what’s needed with scheduling to enable online therapists to participate in IEP meetings and share information about students.

Hurley communicates regularly with school staff through video, e-mail or phone in the 10 districts between Vermont and Arkansas, where she works with schools to update them about students.

Similarly, speech-language pathologist Gila Cohen-Shaw, who’s worked with PresenceLearning for the past eight years, makes sure she’s part of the conversation. She coordinates with students’ teachers, adjusting therapy sessions to address particular skill needs or curriculum, and participates in team meetings. She invites calls or texts because “school staff needs to be able to put a face to the name,” she says.

» Projected needs. Monitor the therapy service needs in an ongoing way to ensure you are staffing with online therapists appropriately. “We’re very strategic about our numbers,” Mosley-Schubert says. “We meet and talk with eLuma and look at the caseload together. We make sure we’re in tune with students’ needs.”