Presence Learning Website

A bid for online speech therapy services for 150 students through Presence Learning will be presented to the Waco Independent School District school board for approval Thursday.

The Waco Independent School District provided more insight Wednesday into a plan to transition 28 percent of its speech therapy students from in-person speech therapy to an online teletherapy program.

If approved by the Waco ISD school board Thursday evening, 150 select speech therapy students attending 11 campuses, including Transformation Waco schools, will be affected by the change.

But hours before the program is up for a vote, some students’ parents have yet to be notified of the possible change in their child’s speech therapy services.

Due to a shortage of speech therapists, the district plans to enter into a contract with Presence Learning to provide online speech therapy sessions to 150 students and speech evaluations for 50 students, at an estimated annual cost of $152,325, according to board documents. The bid for the online program was listed on a board workshop meeting agenda Sept. 19, but not discussed during the meeting.

Students from the following schools were selected to receive online speech therapy services: Brook Avenue Elementary, Cedar Ridge Elementary, Crestview Elementary, G.W. Carver Middle, Hillcrest PDS Elementary Magnet, Indian Spring Middle, J.H. Hines Elementary, Bell’s Hill Elementary, Lake Air Montessori, Parkdale Elementary and South Waco Elementary.

“There are 150 students, who have been tentatively identified for online speech therapy by our speech pathologists based on the students’ goals and ability to self-regulate,” Waco ISD spokesman Kyle DeBeer said. “Students working on goals related to expressive and receptive language skills were candidates for online therapy. Students working on social skills or articulation requiring physical manipulation of facial muscles were not.”

In the classroom

Most students receiving online speech therapy will do so at a computer “learning center” in the student’s classroom under the supervision of the regular classroom teacher.

Currently, the district employs six full-time speech pathologists and three full-time speech pathologist assistants to provide services for 536 students, but three open speech pathologist positions remain unfilled, DeBeer said in an email Wednesday.

“We are continuing our efforts to fill the three positions for speech pathologists that are still open today,” DeBeer said. “In fact, a candidate for one of the positions was interviewed yesterday. However, we are aware that there is a shortage of qualified candidates in both Texas and nationwide. As a result, we feel a sense of urgency to identify other ways to provide high-quality services in order to make sure that any break in therapy is as short as possible.”

Multiple requests to speak with a special education director Tuesday and Wednesday were not approved, but submitted questions about the program were answered by email late Wednesday afternoon.

“The speech pathologists providing online therapy have the same certifications and licenses as our employees providing in-person therapy,” DeBeer said. “The online speech pathologists participate in ARD (Admission, Review and Dismissal) committees, write goals and complete progress reports for the students that they serve.”

Speech teletherapy is not recommended for everyone, but in certain cases, it can provide comparable outcomes to in-person speech therapy, University of Texas at Austin Communication Sciences and Disorders department chair Rajinder Koul said Wednesday.

“The thing is it’s very important to remember that you cannot replace traditional face-to-face services all of the time with (teletherapy), because speech-language or pathology services are based on the unique needs of each individual child,” Koul said.

But in some cases, teletherapy may provide better results for students in need of greater specialization, he said.

Parental options

Considering the importance of speech in a child’s development, parents should be diligent in monitoring the documentation of the program and aware of their option to decline online therapy services, he said.

“If you don’t receive (speech) services, it’s a lifelong barrier,” Koul said. “… Communication is at the core of human relationships, without the ability to communicate the quality of life and ability to connect with others suffers greatly.”

Waco ISD and Transformation Waco parents of selected students are in the process of being notified by the district, DeBeer said Wednesday. The special education department is drafting a letter to distribute to parents.

“Unfortunately, most parents first learned about the change by reading the newspaper, and we apologize that they did not hear from us first,” he said. “We should have reached out to parents earlier in the process.”

Online therapy sessions have not started and will not begin until parents are contacted, he said.

“If parents have a concern about online speech therapy services, as with any aspect of their child’s education, we would encourage parents to talk with their child’s school or the special education department about it,” he said.

A question-and-answer session about the online service will be hosted by the special education department at 6:15 p.m. Monday in the Waco ISD Conference Center located at 115 S. Fifth St.

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