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Return to school with new staffing strategies

Educators today are working more hours with less support to get the work done. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there are 567,000 fewer educators in America’s public schools than there were before the pandemic, and 43% of jobs posted are going unfilled. According to a recent RAND report, educators are more likely to report job-related stress and symptoms of depression than the general adult population.

RAND goes on to offer recommendations for change, including this one: “District leaders should collaboratively develop clear policies for remote teaching and consider adopting technology standards for remote teaching…”

Hybrid or remote work has its place in the corporate world. Yet, as you plan staffing for the return to school, you’re probably wondering: Can it really work in your school? The easy answer is: It can. The more complicated answer is that it’s easier said than done, and it may not work well in every area of education.

Here is one case to consider: Remote solutions have, for some time, successfully supported special education and behavioral and mental health services. In particular, adding offsite therapists via teletherapy can help manage the workload for overburdened school-based staff. It’s not a replacement for your staff members. It’s a way to support them (and the distinction is critical). But let’s break this down into practical solutions for two key pain points that are straining schools and special education staff today.

You need to support your staff and students, better

Some states have caseload caps that may range from 30 to 50 students for each position such as school counselors, psychologists, and social workers, but many states don’t have these caps. A common source of burnout among staff in special education are caseloads that extend far beyond what is humanly possible for one person to accomplish. Presence has gone into schools in Florida where there is not a caseload cap and where one single speech-language pathologist, for instance, is responsible for serving up to 160 to 170 students. In California, state law limits caseloads to 55 students for providers, though overages can occur (and do) with a waiver. Recently a district in California called for educators who accept additional students on their caseload to receive increased compensation. That’s great if they aren’t already maxed out, serving triple the students they should be serving. There are very few people who would say educators shouldn’t earn more. But, while extra compensation is an important solution in improving the pipeline and growing careers, using it as a way to incentivize staff to take on more children than they may be able to handle (effectively or ethically) is not the way to go about it.

Put the student at the center and staff in the best position possible—integrate modern staffing supports into your model. Tap into providers from beyond your community who can serve your students online, and it could well open up an opportunity to support student choice.

Staff time spent on therapy had been slipping well below our 85% target. After adding our new model and online therapists to help them manage entire caseloads, we now consistently see 90% or more of their time dedicated to serving kids.

Hall surveyed providers before and after implementing these changes. Previously her in-school providers had been pulled in multiple directions across a range of regular or over-the-transom tasks and, as a result, were spending a decreasing amount of time on direct student therapy.

“Staff time spent on therapy had been slipping well below our 85% target,” she said. “After adding our new model and online model and online therapists to help them manage entire caseloads, we now consistently see 90% or more of their time dedicated to serving kids.”

She also offers this piece of advice: “If I had my way, all of our high school students would receive their services virtually. They love it. We are at a point where we all, as educators, need to ask students about their experiences. Sometimes we make decisions without the student weighing in, and different approaches to learning work better for different kids. With therapy, I want to hear the input from the kids and let them choose: What format works best for you?”

Tackle your biggest challenges

As you look to the new school year, you’re likely trying to define the biggest, outlying challenges you still need to address. You may need to get caught up on evaluations and services or may want to prevent that backlog from building up again. There is a lot of pressure to do so. One report estimates that school attendance and engagement saw the largest declines among children with disabilities, with many who may have started the 2021 school year up to one year behind. A survey of parents by the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates found that only 18% of students with disabilities had been offered compensatory services since the onset of the pandemic.

“Students with special needs are particularly vulnerable to the consequences of gaps in education,” said Robert Avossa, former superintendent of Palm Beach County Schools in Florida. “Making up for lost services is critical.”

Allocating specific projects or parts of projects to an offsite team of teletherapists can help manage major disruptions that arise and cause a sudden swell in needs. These things happen (and lately they seem to happen more often), and any school will struggle to tackle them within a regular staffing model. Presence, for example, has partnered with a district and provided six clinicians to support the rise in need for psychoeducational assessments during COVID-19—previously one person had been in charge of handling all of them. Having online providers manage the things that can be done remotely can also free up the onsite team to focus on those support services that must be done in-person.

“Now that an online school psychologist completes assessments for our middle and high school students, our onsite school psychologist has more time for ongoing therapy and other responsibilities,” said Juliet Fenrich, special education coordinator at Hinsdale School District in New Hampshire.

Integrating digital innovation into your staffing model to manage the workflow doesn’t mean moving away from the standard of in-person instruction. It simply means you’re helping the traditional model evolve and scale even better for today’s needs.

Learn More

If you are a school or policymaker interested in how teletherapy can help to support schools in your area, get in touch today for a free consultation.

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