Federal and state laws mandate that schools provide students who qualify for special education services with the therapy they need for learning. When the pandemic hit and schools closed, teletherapy became a critical means to deliver mandatory special education services to students at home. For many schools, returning to the classroom and business as usual is a real struggle, so they are using teletherapy on at least a temporary basis to help them get through a difficult transition. Some districts, meanwhile, are recognizing that the flexibility provided by teletherapy and related virtual services can be valuable as a permanent feature to mandated support services.
For districts, virtual services mean that a clinician can help more students compared to in-person services; instead of driving from school to school, clinicians can help students without leaving their office or home. Not only does this eliminate nonproductive time spent in traffic, but teletherapy reduces stress on clinicians, enabling them to maintain their caseloads with less risk of burnout and staff turnover.
This virtual medium also allows a therapist to provide one-on-one or small group services that may improve outcomes. In the pandemic, many clinicians realized the advantages and quickly and smoothly transitioned from providing in-person to virtual support for students. In returning to school, some districts are adopting hybrid models that allow clinicians to do teletherapy on some days and in-person therapy on others or to customize programs for individual students and schools.
Teletherapy also helps small schools, rural districts, and under-resourced areas where hiring their own therapists and other clinicians is a hardship, enabling them to contract with virtual providers who cover multiple districts.
Students and their families can have much more flexibility in when and how they connect with their therapists. Teletherapy makes it a lot easier for parents and other family to take part in therapy or meet with therapists, since they don’t have to take time off work and travel to the school. Also, with the advent of user-friendly virtual interpretation services, language barriers are more easily removed for clinicians and students and their families with teletherapy.
Teletherapy in schools has been used mostly for speech pathology, which is the most in-demand service related to education of students with Individual Education Programs (IEP). But it’s now also being used for other clinical services for students. Currently, demand for school psychologists is very high while supply of school psychologists is very low; school psychologists often spend long hours driving from campus to campus within a district to conduct assessments and create programs for individual students and schools. Pressure on school psychologists due to high workload can be intense, with the current national average of one psychologist for every 1,300 students.
Because of high demand and low supply of behavioral health practitioners in schools, it’s expected that utilization of teletherapy in this clinical area will grow, just as it has increased for the general patient population. Research has shown that telehealth is just as effective as in-person psychotherapy and that patient retention rates are higher, according to the American Psychological Association.
Experience during the pandemic confirmed that school districts should consider incorporating teletherapy and other forms of telehealth, including for school psychologists and students, to better serve greater numbers of students, give students and their families more options for receiving help, and ease the caseload and travel burdens on school therapists and other clinicians. This is particularly true for school districts in rural areas and other underserved environments, where managing caseloads has always been difficult. With increasing shortages of school clinicians, embracing teletherapy and other types of telehealth is the next logical step for most school districts.