Things were bad this year. Charlie’s IEP was changed last Spring when the District sent their bulldog to enforce changes seemingly part of a larger strategy that had little to do with Charlie’s education. They wanted him in a different program. They wanted him in a different school. They wanted him away from the general ed children entirely. All of this was going to be bad for him. We knew that. But there was very little we could do (so we thought).
So we agreed to compromise. As good partners we agreed to have Charlie exit the program he was thriving in to join what we were told was a new program they were developing for kids just like him at his current school. In actuality the program was a broom closet for children. There were three students including him. They didn’t even celebrate Halloween. He was miserable. He cried a lot. He would need somebody to hold him at night so he could fall asleep.
Charlie had a lot of friends in that school, so it was with a heavy heart that we agreed to the next District demand. Move him to a different school. That school, they told us, had a thriving program and an abundance of resources that would help ease Charlie in.
Charlie’s first day in his new school the teacher was absent. She called out that week and didn’t leave a plan with the substitute who had no idea Charlie would be arriving. We later learned that there weren’t enough aids for the children already there, let alone an additional child. Weeks after that the phone rang. Charlie had become distressed, left his classroom, and ran off the campus and needed to be picked up at a coffee shop down the street.
We wanted to make it work. We had to make it work. We had already moved him from his program. We’d now moved him from his school. So we pushed on, and things continued to get worse. His behavior declined. His happiness declined. He didn’t find any new friends at this school and seemed to spend most of his time at recess alone.
So we handed a lump sum of money to an advocate and began researching legal options. After a months long process to have the situation more formally assessed we were able to obtain an agreement, legally bound to his IEP, that more resources would be provided and that we have better control over the situation and hopefully salvage the school year. A week later the schools were closed.
It’s at this point that I feel obligated to mention that people should never be held accountable for the assurances and promises of others, and that nobody within Charlie’s current school or program had told us the program was a fit or that resources would be available. The principal and administrative staff, as well as the teacher and aids have been thoughtful and engaged. They are ultimately being held to account for a situation that was created by the rash decision making of others.
This is especially true for the thousands of teachers and other staff who suddenly have to cobble together a “virtual learning” program by a governor wanting to have his cake and devour it too. Close the schools but keep them open. It’s an ill thought, poorly planned disaster that is at best irresponsible and at worst a death sentence to the education of thousands of students who were barely hanging on by the fringes of what their schools could offer when circumstances were “normal”.
Charlie’s IEP seems to no longer hold any merit, there are no resources to assist because they can’t assist, and in the absence of computer learning we’ve had to provide him a crash course in basic computer software. Kids are clever tablet users, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to understanding the OS of God-knows-what laptop they were able to hastily acquire. And like many parents in these circumstances my wife and I both work remotely, scrambling to care for a 2-year-old while taking conference calls and attempting to help Charlie find Alaska on a map of the states.
There’s no such thing as “virtual learning”, this situation is a mess and the people perpetuating the idea that we’re all “coming together” to make it work are helping widen already massive inequalities within the public school system.
The structure of every learning model for children on the spectrum requires layers of hands-on support that combines behavioral with academic assistance and only sustains under controlled environments. Suddenly taking a kid with autism from a classroom, putting a laptop in his hands and sending him a Zoom login and calling that education is a lie, and in fact worse than if the state would simply close the schools for 6 weeks and then reopen with an adjusted summer schedule.
And it’s not only children with disabilities who are suffering. Preliminary data suggests that there are thousands of kids who simply haven’t even logged on or engaged with their teachers since California schools closed two weeks ago. That number disproportionately impacting minority communities, families in poverty, families with disabilities or other special circumstances who are being scattered to the wind as one group who has the circumstances and privileges to even attempt a “virtual learning” environment continues to receive some kind of education while the the group who does not is receiving no education.
Here’s a fun thought experiment. Pretend you’re a single mother of two who is a teacher. Whose children are you now legally obligated to provide an education to? The answer right now is both and at the same time. This is the essence of Orwellian doublethink and it needs to be properly addressed and debated without fear that doing so is to negate the seriousness of the circumstances.
I understand that COVID-19 is a dangerous pandemic and that there are legitimate life-and-death responses necessary, but I continue to hear terms like “spring break” and “summer break” and wonder how some schedules are considered so sacrosanct as everything else in life is being adjusted. Sports leagues and concert tours are adapting scheduling changes to the year and yet education is not.