I know it’s a tough decision to make regarding children and teachers’ health when it comes to whether they go back to school in person or stay virtual, but I do not feel all sides of the argument are being considered. The world cannot continue to shut down only certain segments of business, society and life, while other parts stay open and fully operational. Tell me why nail salons, retail stores, tattoo parlors, bars and other non-essential businesses continue to operate while churches and schools remain closed or at very limited capacity. It’s contradictory to the numbers and statistics being reported each day – that children are the least affected/symptomatic, yet they are the ones being forgotten in this tumultuous time.
I have 2 children on very opposite ends of the spectrum, literally. My older son is in 4th grade, has an Autism diagnosis (is non-verbal), is moderately immune compromised and lacks appropriate social and play skills. My younger son is in 3rd grade, is a part of the Encore program and is super social and outgoing. BOTH of my children are suffering and struggling through virtual learning. It’s not an ideal solution for either of them.
For my oldest, and a lot of children with special needs, learning through a laptop is the least effective way to teach. They need hands-on, individualized learning (as per their IEPs). On top of having a short attention span, sensory issues and having to be redirected often, my son doesn’t know how to use a mouse or type on a computer. He doesn’t understand what’s being asked of him while his teacher is on the other side of the often glitchy computer screen, in a tiny two inch box trying to read Google documents or go through interactive websites that he cannot engage with. I have to sit with him constantly while he is on his synchronous “Teams” calls, making him stay in his seat, navigating the mouse for him, prompting and asking the questions and doing 90% of the teaching myself. I know the teachers are doing their best, but does MNPS really believe this is sustainable long-term for children with disabilities? And how is this supposed to work for parents who have full time jobs? Or children who speak English as their second language? How does this work if parents have multiple children who need their help? How does this work with children whose parents cannot monitor them? The short answer is… it doesn’t.
How are children with an IEP, who receive Speech Therapy, Occupational Therapy or Physical Therapy supposed to access those services through a computer? How does a child who is non-verbal get therapy, any kind, through a screen? We are lucky that we are able to provide private in-person therapies for our son, but even in the beginning of COVID and quarantine we tried Telehealth for a few weeks and called it quits shortly after starting. It was a waste of time and money because those therapies were not designed to be administered through a computer. Children with Autism (and other special needs) need face to face instruction. Children like my son rely on body language, facial cues, and non-verbal prompts to learn and interact with people. “Social skills aren’t learned in isolation.” You cannot get that through a computer.
For my typically developing son, I know he will make it through this, but I worry about his mental health. He is resilient and has been through a lot in his short life, but school is his escape. He thrives amongst his peers and loves to learn. Having a sibling with special needs can be very stressful for a child at home. Being removed from in-person school has taken his one escape from an often hectic home life. I’m concerned this may be detrimental to him…and many others in a similar position.
This isn’t just about children with special needs. What about children who may be in abusive households? Or children whose parents may not be able to put 3 meals on the table every day and rely on school meals? What about young children who are left at home all day alone while their parents are working to make ends meet and don’t have time to assist them with virtual learning? And now that recording lessons on Microsoft Teams isn’t an option (because of privacy issues with recording students), how are children expected to get on at a later time in the day or evening when an adult is available to help?
Children, especially special needs children and elementary age students, need structure and routine. Children with Autism thrive having a schedule, predictability and routine. Elementary school years are some of the most formative years in a child’s life. It lays the foundation for the rest of their learning. It should be fun and care-free. This time of COVID is scary and uncertain enough. School should be a consistent, safe space they can go to learn and escape, uninfluenced by the politics of a situation. But the Mayor and MNPS have not provided these children with anything other than more stress, frustration and uncertainty.
Parents and teachers deserve the option to choose whether children are able to learn in person. No child is the same. No family is the same. Parents and teachers should at least have a choice at the health risk they are willing to take to have their children in school, learning in person. And the teachers and students who feel virtual learning is working for them, or they aren’t willing to risk getting COVID, can stay home and learn on a computer. But virtual learning does NOT work for all children and better options need to be given to those who are being forgotten or disregarded.
“The increased knowledge and personal growth that happens during school age years provide the foundation for the rest of a person’s life. That’s why it is critical that your child is getting the best education possible tailored to his or her unique needs.” – Autism Speaks