FRESNO, Calif. — The Fresno Unified School District will spend nearly $1 million to offer speech and language lessons for students with special needs by video chat.

Brian Beck, FUSD assistant superintendent for special education, said the first and best option would be to have district speech language pathologists and assistants in the classroom with students, but staffing shortages have made that impossible.

“This is the only way that every student who needs these services gets them,” Beck said.

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The district has 23 vacant speech language pathologist positions, as well as some assistant positions that just recently opened because the people who left are pursuing the training needed to become pathologists.

District speech language pathologists have an average caseload of 55 students, but in a Council of the Great City Schools report filed last year, some reported caseloads as high as 80 students. The work they do with each varies depending on an individual child’s needs, but includes treating a variety of communicative disorders and delays, tracking students’ progress and more.

The district board voted last week to add $999,000 to its contract with PresenceLearning, which provides speech and language services to students who have communication delays or disorders. The additional money would pay for in-person and telepractice sessions.

Paul Idsvoog, the district’s chief executive of human resources, said FUSD finds itself recruiting against contractors like PresenceLearning that typically can offer better pay and lighter caseloads.

Telepractice lessons extend the contractors’ resources. As Idsvoog put it, “They can be in their P.J. bottoms.”

Though the board approved the contract, some trustees expressed personal reservations about the arrangement. Trustee Keshia Thomas, a teacher, said she was highly opposed to video sessions, which lack the one-on-one time with an educator that in-person language lessons provide. Thomas said she’d prefer to see the district train people from the community to become speech pathologists.

Trustee Genoveva Islas added that she’d heard of technical difficulties curtailing some sessions, but Beck said that the time is made up.

The workload on special education providers has been a longstanding topic of discussion not just at the district, but nationally, as the need for pathologists and paraprofessionals goes up, but the number of graduates in those fields stagnates. Speech language pathology students often need hundreds of hours of clinical work prior to graduating, and master’s programs can be hard to find. Additionally, a district estimate found that half of all SLPs in schools will retire in the next decade.

Rachel Sanchez, who retired from the Fresno County Office of Education after over 30 years as a speech language pathologist, said that even in a supportive environment, she found her workload overwhelming.

“The workload is so extreme. As soon as August rolls around, you are a speech therapist. You don’t have time to be a mother, a wife or friend,” Sanchez said. “It consumes your entire life until June.”

The therapy itself took up the school day, leaving the mandatory paperwork for off-hours, Sanchez said. A school district seeking to better support its pathologists could switch to a schedule that allows them to spend three weeks on therapy sessions with one dedicated week for paperwork, according to Sanchez.

“As hard as it was, I loved it,” Sanchez said. “Nothing was more rewarding than when parents saw what their child could do.”

Sanchez, who worked primarily with preschoolers, said that video sessions would be impossible with students that young.

Chrissy Kelly, a Fresno Unified parent and advocate, said telepractice sessions can work wonders for some students, but that they are not for everyone.

“As with any intervention, I think it’s important that students are appropriately selected for this method of delivery, and the treatment plan is individualized for each student’s needs,” Kelly said. “Autism is often accompanied by complex speech disorders, and therapy is most successful when done in the natural environment. I would not use it with my boys because their needs go beyond what a computer (portal) can provide.”

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