Last spring, when the COVID-19 regulations sent students home from school, many school districts were unprepared to provide vital therapy services to their most vulnerable population: special education students.
But the Reno County Education Cooperative and several other cooperatives in Kansas were able to transfer their therapy sessions to the student’s home, often with a minimal hiccup.
Many special education students need access to speech and occupational therapies. Finding these therapists in rural communities is often difficult. Several companies have started offering these services online.
Last fall, Reno County Education Cooperative hired both on-site and virtual therapists. Flint Hills, High Plains, South Central and Tri-County cooperatives have either a year ago contracted with online companies for therapy or are about to this fall.
Filling a void
Last fall, RCEC contracted with eLuma out of Utah. This online company supplies speech, occupational and mental health therapists to students in 35 states.
"Getting speech services online was an extreme benefit to us," said Lena Kisner, executive director of special education at RCEC. "Having them on staff during COVID made us a lot calmer."
Kisner made a decision before COVID-19 hit to diversify the organization’s therapy model with both on-site therapists and virtual therapists. This decision enabled the co-op to continue delivering therapy to students after school went remote this spring.
A decade ago, eLuma realized there was a need for online therapists. Although the company was busy since its startup in 2011, during the spring of 2020, the phone rings more often.
"We have seen a high uptick in inquiries," said Jeremy Glaucer, CEO of eLuma. "We’re growing very rapidly in Kansas."
This online technology is ensuring that special education students in Reno County and elsewhere do not lose vital time when schools shut down or when therapists are difficult to come by.
"There’s a lot of complexities to serving students with special needs," Glaucer said. "Our data shows that online therapy can be just as effective as on-site therapy."
Not quite the same as in-person
But, online therapy is not for every student. Glaucer admits that there are some students who work better with in-person services, saying a small selection of students need a one-on-one, face-to-face session.
South Central Kansas Special Education Cooperative, which serves Anthony, Attica, Kingman, Medicine Lodge and Pratt, tried a different online service last spring. They also had their therapists work with students via the internet.
"We found it worked better than they (his therapists) thought," said Bob Diepenbrock, director of South Central Co-op. "The younger the student they dealt with and the more difficult the student they dealt with made it more difficult."
For all ages and abilities, whether it is a school employee or a parent, a person will have to help the student during an online session and be available in case any issues arise.
This fall, Diepenbrock will work with occupational therapists from eLuma. Although he does not envision the service helping all the students, Diepenbrock thinks more students will benefit from them as both his therapists and the online therapists will not waste travel time when they could be helping students.
Starting this fall
The High Plains Educational Cooperative had not experienced online therapy before. This district, which includes Holcomb, Lakin, Moscow, Scott City, Sublette and Ulysses, will start offering online occupational therapy this fall.
"There’s a shortage of onsite occupational therapists to provide services," said Marcy Fierstein, director for the High Plains Educational Cooperative. "We’ve looked at different organizations."
For many school districts, several years ago, offering therapy online had not been a thought. But because Reno County offered these services before COVID-19 hit, once mandatory school shutdowns occurred, RCEC found their students and their therapists more informed to handle new circumstances.