Not every kid is able to learn on an iPad. Not every kid can work independently. Some children need one-on-one therapy with trained teachers and therapists. Right now, it feels like we’re failing those children.
I’m the father of an eight-year-old, non-verbal autistic son. My wife and I recently spent a significant amount of time working with our school district to find an appropriate school for him. Given his difficulties, this was no small task. His prior school situation could not handle him anymore. Finally, we found what we hoped would be a good fit, with strong teachers and therapists that could handle him.
Not long after my son started the new school, the governor closed schools because of this pandemic. My wife and I were upset and disappointed, but we understood. While there were no cases in our son’s school or our local district, this disease was rampant in our area of New York. They asked for two weeks to “flatten the curve.” We understood and were willing to give them that.
Then it was a month. Then it was another month. Then it became indefinite. Now, at least in New York, there is even uncertainty about school starting back in September.
The curve has been flattened, but my son is still not allowed to be educated in the classroom.
My son can’t understand why he isn’t in school. His anxiety is apparent. The tantrums have gotten worse. The behaviors have increased. Skills we’ve spent years working on have regressed.
We’ve dealt as best we can. Every day is different. When there is a good day, we fortunately forget about the bad days, but the bad days are increasing. This is not sustainable for him long term. He needs to get back to his school.
When we calculate the risk going forward, we need to include the damage to our children from not getting the education they need and deserve.
“Distance learning” is especially difficult for children, like my son. As a special education teacher recently described in an interview with Vox, some kids rely on personal and physical interaction to engage with their teachers and therapists: “Typically, we communicate through physical interaction.There’s a big gap there, with students who are nonverbal but aren’t at the level of using a device like that.”
So while we’ll continue with “distance learning” and keep our son engaged the best we can, the type of learning he needs does not work through a laptop.
Generally, the impact on our children from this closure and the uncertainty cannot be ignored. There is already evidence of the increased anxiety and mental health problems in kids, especially adolescents, because of the pandemic.
“Essential” businesses are open and allowed to operate with workers in close proximity and interacting with the general public. Our leaders have come up with plans for restaurants, golf courses, public transportation, and seemingly every other aspect of society. Schools seem to be an afterthought. They are just closed—possibly indefinitely.
My son’s education is essential. Special education classrooms are essential. Summer Session for some special needs kids is also essential. Not just because it’s part of our federal law but because these kids are extra susceptible to summer regression (see, for example, here).
Here is what I want our public officials to know: I am willing to do what is necessary within reason. However, if you are keeping my child from his right to an education, then you need a good reason and you need to articulate it. Your reason cannot be general and speculative. When can my son go back to his school? How was this decided? What evidence was used? Have you factored the anxiety and regression experienced by special needs children during this pandemic into this decision about schools?
At this point, blanket school closures are unacceptable and a violation of our rights. The laws that cover Special Education are still in effect (pandemic or not), and our children are entitled to a Free and Appropriate Public Education and all the other rights outlined under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
The curve has been flattened. We’ve done our part. When we calculate the risk going forward, we need to include the damage to our children, including special needs children, from not getting the education they need and deserve.
Michael A. Vicario, from Long Island NY, is a husband to Rachel, and father of two amazing and energetic eight-year-old boys.