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Supporting students on 504 plans during remote learning

Donell Pons
November 4, 2020

This is part four of a six-part series about how to improve the classroom experience for students with dyslexia. You can read part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 here.

Educators putting together 504 plans for students might have to approach it from a different angle these days. Though accommodating students by offering them extended time to work on assignments might seem like an appropriate route, with or without a pandemic, it just isn’t enough. These students need one-on-one support, whether it’s virtual or in person. Because an individualized education program is often perceived as being similar to a 504 plan, I’ll first illustrate the difference between the two.

An IEP provides specialized instruction to assist a student who has qualified for services in one of 13 categories to receive a free and appropriate public education in a least restrictive environment. Qualification shows that a student has an identifiable learning challenge and requires individualized services. IEPs are formally reevaluated yearly with retesting every three years. However, parents may call a meeting with the school any time they need to discuss their student’s IEP. (Read more about keeping students with IEPs on track here.)

A 504 Plan, on the other hand, refers to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the American’s with Disabilities Act. It is not individualized and provides no special programming. Students receive accommodations that allow them to meet the demands of the curriculum. The most common accommodation for struggling readers is extended time. Unlike IEPs, 504 Plans don’t require a qualification, aren’t closely monitored, and have no money attached. As a result, engaging students on 504 Plans depends on the commitment of individual educators. Here's some insight into how you can appropriately support students with 504 plans to ensure they stay on track with their academics.

The impact of COVID-19 on students with 504 plans

Education and social justice researchers are just beginning to examine data to help them understand just how much students with learning differences have been affected by COVID-19. For now, most of the information educators are receiving is by word of mouth or direct experience with struggling learners. Generally, it’s much easier for a teacher to realize a student is having a hard time when they can see the student in class.  I have plenty of personal stories from parents across the country who have reached out asking for resources to support a struggling student who has been thrust into an online learning environment. With the way 504 plans work, it generally takes a fair amount of effort on the student’s part to advocate for accommodations.

With many classes moving from in person to online, there wasn't much time to implement universal design, which refers to the design of buildings, products or environments to make them accessible to all people, regardless of age, disability or other factors. For example, Landmark College, a college for students with learning differences, found that having professors add appropriate accommodations to their online courses after the fact was more difficult than just starting over with UD.

The biggest challenge I have seen for most learners with a 504 for reading and writing difficulties has been an inability to manage the organizational demands of online classes. In other words, the due dates and where to find course work, along with what aspects of the course were synchronous versus asynchronous, became very challenging.

Next, many educators added reading and writing assignments in order to make up for lost lecture time. As many students have returned to hybrid, in-class, or online models, much of the confusion surrounding online curriculum design still lingers. Many precious months of planning time went to discussing whether or not students would be in class. Eventually, many districts decided that it didn’t matter, because even if a school started in class, they would probably be spending some time online as a result of rolling quarantines. Unfortunately for students and teachers, online curriculum design wasn’t a priority, and many students have returned to online and hybrid learning spaces with few improvements.

How educators can support students

Communication is critical for students with a 504 plan. Contacting students early and often is the only way to keep them engaged and moving forward. To provide internet access for families in need, some grants have become available due to COVID-19. If you have a need as a parent, educator, student, school, or district, ask the next highest authority for assistance. I’ve been impressed by how responsive some agencies have become as they work to meet the needs of their students.

Access is a start, but clear and consistent communication is up to educators. Once students with learning difficulties miss the first assignment, it’s a quick spiral to giving up entirely. Additionally, students with learning difficulties are working hard to keep up with the regular demands of the course work. Discovering an obscure assignment that wasn’t part of the main course or having a last-minute assignment due can be overwhelming.

Working together, parents, students, teachers, and schools should also be actively discussing how much time students are spending in front of a screen. Some screen time is inevitable -- in-person instruction is not guaranteed this school year. But educators can limit screen time by weaving engaging outdoor activities into the curriculum, such as collecting water samples from local streams for observation or taking a walk or drive with a parent to see what visible signage has been placed in surrounding communities that discuss COVID-19.

No matter what strategies educators use, keeping the lines of communication open among students, parents, teachers, and the school is critical. Many of the difficulties of online learning can be avoided when people are responsive to each other.

Donell Pons is a reading and dyslexia specialist in Salt Lake City, Utah, with a master’s degree in education and teaching from Westminster College, along with a certification in special education. She started her career in education when her youngest son was diagnosed with dyslexia. She uses Reading Horizons in her one-on-one work with students. Connect with her at dbpons@gmail.com.

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