Overcoming COVID-19 Related Learning Loss: A New Normal for School-Based SLPs

Learning Loss

A year and a half of COVID-19 has taken quite a toll on all of us. The impact has been heavily felt by students in our schools—and has been especially damaging for students with disabilities.

Even pre-pandemic, too many of our nation’s schools failed to provide educationally sound interventions delivered by highly qualified personnel. This has been greatly exacerbated by the COVID-19 school closures, as students with disabilities have been shown to suffer the greatest loss of services and supports.1 This includes both intervention as well as identification of students with special needs, as delays and challenges to assessments during the pandemic have contributed to a backlog of students needing evaluations.

And it won’t end when we return to school this fall. Similar disruptions in learning in the past on regional levels took up to four years to realize recovery of student performance levels.2

Acknowledging a New Normal

Just as we all know there will be a new normal for life in general when this pandemic finally passes, we also need to acknowledge a new normal in how school-based SLP services will need to be delivered. The common work mode of schedules filled with small groups of students meeting twice a week won’t provide the focus and intensity needed to compensate for our students’ lack of progress and their regression during school shut downs. And deciding to just “work harder” will quickly lead to burnout and exhaustion for SLPs.

We need to do much more than return to our pre-pandemic efforts if we’re going to avoid serious and continuing hardship for our students. We need to rethink how we’ll help our students recover and progress—and that means starting now to prepare a more efficient and effective approach when schools re-open in the fall.

Two key elements of achieving the focus and intensity needed to overcome learning loss for our students are what I call “focus through flexibility” and “all hands on deck.” The good news is that the strategies supporting these elements are not new. SLPs have used them to varying degrees over the years. What’s needed now is a determined commitment to implement a framework for assessments and interventions that is intentional, comprehensive, well developed, and incorporates these strategies. Let’s look at how to do that.

Focus Through Flexibility

“Focus through flexibility” involves flexible scheduling that allows for a blend of individual and group therapy, using both pull-out and in-class models, and rotating as needed to respond to each student’s changing levels of performance.

Tailoring services to the student’s current need rather than offering a fixed schedule of therapy sessions can increase student gains. Implementation is not difficult; this flexibility can be reflected in a student’s IEP by stating a number of minutes per week or month that comprise multiple settings and formats. Watch the clip below from my MedBridge course, “Educationally Relevant Speech-Language Services in Schools” to see an example of such an IEP.



Flexibility can also be built into an SLP’s schedule through blocks of time for students and classrooms, sometimes cycling across weeks. You can see examples of this in the videos below, from my course, “Balancing & Scheduling Speech-Language Workloads in Schools.”



This flexibility is part of a workload approach to providing services, designing intervention plans based on student need rather than a rigid schedule. Information on implementing this approach as well as several more examples of IEPs and schedules are provided in the course.

Flexible IEPs and schedules allow you to use your clinical judgment and best practice to provide the focus and intensity of services needed to accelerate student outcomes.

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All Hands on Deck

The “all hands on deck” element involves coordination across the student’s entire school day so that work in therapy is relevant to academic, non-academic, and extracurricular settings, supporting learning and experiences in those settings. It’s critical that the goals, objectives, and materials in therapy align with the rest of the student’s day and learning demands in order to connect and reinforce learning experiences. Isolated and segmented experiences will not provide the intensity and practice needed for student progress in any setting.

This happens through two steps:

  1. We need to broaden our thinking about a student’s “educational performance” to include academic, non-academic, and extracurricular settings. This is supported—in fact, mandated—by federal law. This thinking is explained in the course “Educationally Relevant Speech-Language Services in Schools.”
  2. Engaging all of a student’s educators in contributing to the focus of therapy requires intentional communication and collaboration among all school staff who interact with the student. Thanks to email and texting, this breadth of communication isn’t difficult, but it also doesn’t happen automatically. The SLP needs to take the lead on creating this network of sharing.

There are several models of collaboration that fit well within school settings, including co-teaching, consulting, and teaming. These are explained in the course “Effective Collaboration for School-Based Speech-Language Pathologists,” with models of collaboration as well as helpful tips for successful collaboration that include effective communication and relationship building.

Furthermore, time for communication and collaboration can be built into the SLP’s schedule—again, see the course “Balancing & Scheduling Speech-Language Workloads in Schools” for sample schedules—as part of the indirect services provided on behalf of students. You can also refer to my previous article “5 Strategies for Clarifying the SLP’s Role in Schools,” which includes a downloadable handout on incorporating direct and indirect services into your allotted time. Collaboration and communication shouldn’t become an unreasonable burden.

As relieved as we’ll all be to have our schools re-open this fall, our students will need the best we can give them to get back on track and make up for learning loss.

We can do this. We have the tools and strategies. We have the skills. And we have the commitment to make this happen. Let’s get started now so we can make the 2021-22 school year productive and successful for everyone.

  1. Losen, D. J., Martinez, P., & Shin, G. H. R. (2021). Disabling Inequity: The Urgent Need for Race-Conscious Resource Remedies. The Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the Civil Rights Project, UCLA: Los Angeles, CA. Retrieved 5/7/21 from https://www.civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/k-12-education/special-education/disabling-inequity-the-urgent-need-for-race-conscious-resource-remedies/final-Report-03-22-21-v5-corrected.pdf
  2. Texas students could need 4 to 5 years to recover from COVID hearing loss. (2021, March 18). Retrieved 5/7/21 from https://cbsaustin.com/news/local/texas-students.