Ricochet COVID Symposium: Special Needs Kids Need Their Schools

 

[Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of contributions from our members and friends about the hidden costs of the COVID crisis. You can read more about our symposium and how to contribute here.]

 

Not every kid is able to learn on an iPad. Not every kid can work independently. Some kids need one-on-one therapy with trained teachers and therapists. Right now, it feels like we’re failing those kids.

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 the 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, there is even uncertainty about September and next year.

The curve has been flattened, but my son is still not allowed to be educated.

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. 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. He needs his school. 

“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 are an afterthought. They are just closed. Possibly indefinitely.

My son’s education is essential. Special Education classrooms are essential. Summer Session for Special Needs kids is essential. There needs to be a plan.

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 cannot be speculative. Why can’t my son go to his school? How was this decided? What evidence was used? Have you factored my child’s anxiety and regression into your decision?

At this point, blanket school closures are unacceptable and a violation of our rights. Our Special Needs kids are being harmed. 

The curve has been flattened. The hospitals are not overwhelmed. We’ve done our part. When we calculate the risk going forward, we need to include the damage to our kids not being educated.

Stop talking about September. Our Special Needs Kids need teachers and therapists. Open the schools.

 Michael A. Vicario

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  1. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    @brianwatt? Any words of wisdom?

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  2. Brian Watt Member
    Brian Watt
    @BrianWatt

    I know all too well what Mr. Vicario and his wife must be going through. My speech-challenged autistic son is now of an age where he is no longer in school, so he, thankfully doesn’t have to deal with the stress and anxiety of not understanding why the schools and Special Needs classes have made the determination to stay closed.

    Routine is critical for anxiety-prone autistic kids. It helps them stay focused and helps them to manage in a world that can often be confusing or irritating to their senses. When my son aged out of college, it took several months for him to grasp that school was no longer something that was going to be part of his day. Needless to say, he wasn’t happy about it. “I want school, please!” was a constant refrain.

    Through this lockdown, he has been relatively manageable, even though his twice-a-week day program where went out into the community was cancelled. There have been a few episodes of aggression and frustration, including putting his fist into his tv but for the most part he’s done well. 

    On Saturday, he asked for “movie theater”. I explained to him that movie theaters were closed and then slowly tried to explain to him about the virus and that it was very small and if it got into you that it could make you sick and that’s why movie theaters and other places were shut down and why people were wearing masks. He seemed to be connecting with what I was saying, so I put on the news and he sat and patiently watched the news with me, then turned to me and surprisingly said, “Sky News”. I was a bit stunned and turned on Sky News which was running wall-to-wall coverage of the pandemic and I would interject the occasional comment, like “See all those people wearing masks? They don’t want to get the virus and get sick.” To my surprise, he sat and watched the news for about an hour and a half, which for an autistic individual to watch the same program without jumping to something else after a few minutes or stimming by rewinding a DVD or YouTube video, is a feat in itself. Since he’s also speech-challenged, it’s difficult to know how much of this he really comprehends…but he knows that life around him has been different.

    My heart goes out to the Vicarios and I hope the Special Needs classes will reopen even if the regular classes do not.

    • #2
  3. Thaddeus Wert Coolidge
    Thaddeus Wert
    @TWert

    Oh my, I can relate to this post. Our daughter turned 30 on April 6, and she is developmentally delayed with a severe speech disorder. For the past 8 years, she has gone to a wonderful day program –Friends Life – for adults with disabilities. When things shut down in mid-March, Anna Claire basically stayed in bed for a week. We finally got her up and moving when a neighbor who owns a horse invited us to drive out to the stable and pet it. 

    The teachers and staff at Friends Life have done heroic work coming up with activities and lessons online, but Anna Claire has never been able to interact with people on a screen. So, she has missed seeing her friends, working at a local BBQ restaurant, doing yoga, and her favorite activity, art (see below).

    @brianwatt, Anna Claire’s favorite TV channel is Food Network, and we think all of the commercials about “these uncertain times” etc., have helped her understand that we’re not the only ones staying home. Like you, my heart goes out to the Vicarios.

    Friends Life is slowly and cautiously letting Anna Claire and her friends come on campus in small groups, but only one day a week, for a couple of hours. My wife and I are concerned about what we will do if they aren’t available Monday through Friday in the fall. We’re both teachers, and my wife may have to quit her job to stay at home with Anna Claire. Meanwhile, we’re hoping and praying. 

    • #3
  4. Isaiah's Job Member
    Isaiah's Job
    @IsaiahsJob

    I have huge sympathy for you and your wife Michael. I’ve been remote schooling my ten-year-old daughter with Down syndrome since March 15th. It’s gone okay; her reading and math skills are slowly improving, she’s used to meeting with her therapists online (we live somewhere very rural), and there’s a one hour “circle time” in the morning via Microsoft Teams where she gets to interact with her classmates… those that remain at this point, that is. One-by-one the children aren’t showing up, and their parents aren’t stopping them. 

    It isn’t real schooling. Everyone is just pretending for the sake of politeness. Children with Down syndrome mostly learn through interaction and group participation, not working on things alone. (Though she’s basically computer literate, and likes educational software within reason.) The best we can hope for it to hold the line with her skills and hope for better times.

    And of course the entire thing has become absurd. My daughter works with her teacher’s aid online, but isn’t allowed to see her in person due to COVID-19… even though she lives *literally* across the street and another member of her household is one of my coworkers. The school administrator is basically trying to hold her staff in place for the next school year, so it’s become a job program. This person cleans the school every day (even though nobody is there), this person deliveries lunches to the children, this person teaches yoga online to the children, etc etc.

    I don’t blame her of course. As a small community we’ve spent a decade building the school up from nearly nothing to something approximating a normal school, one kid at a time. And now? Who can say.  

     

    • #4