What School Choice Means for Kids With Disabilities During a Global Pandemic
Educational choices for children has historically been a fairly easy decision for many families. Most families enroll their children in local public schools where they attend with friends within their community. Some families chose to send their children to private schools for religious reasons or specialized programs. Other families elect to home-school their children as a reflection of their educational choice. But for families of children with disabilities, educational choice is never an easy decision, and given the current state of the COVID-19 pandemic, that decision has never before been more difficult and agonizing.
Our Family’s Education 2020 Story
My youngest son is 5 years old and has ADHD and autism spectrum disorder. During the beginning of the pandemic, we applied to a highly regarded autism charter school. We were thrilled when we got the news that our son was offered a kindergarten spot for this upcoming school year. Despite COVID-19, during the summer, he continued working with his behavior therapist. She has been in our quarantine bubble since the beginning and without behavior therapy, my son struggles with everyday skills that impact his daily living. We approached the summer with the goal in mind that come August, he’d either attend the school for face-to-face instruction or virtually, which is called distance learning.
As August approached and the virus was still raging through our country, we elected for the distance learning option. Our county offered a 10-day trial before the official back-to-school start date so students and teachers across the district would know what to expect and could work out the kinks.
On day one, I felt totally prepared! I had a Token Chart ready to reward him for each task and had the daily schedule printed and posted. The school had done a fantastic job of telling us what to expect and providing necessary resources. My son’s therapist would be here to offer her support and I was confident this would go off without a hitch. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
It turns out, six hours of distance learning per day wasn’t going to be as effortless as I had imagined. We had to constantly redirect him to the computer to interact with the teacher. Because she was in the room with other teachers, she was understandably wearing a face mask. Verbal and nonverbal communication is already difficult for children on the spectrum, so only being able to see her eyes and made it difficult for him to know what she was saying. There was also so much happening on the screen at one time that he didn’t know what to pay attention to. That made him lose interest quickly and it went downhill from there.
Over the next two weeks, we began to witness a severe regression in behaviors that we’d all worked so hard to help him overcome. While each day he should have been learning to tolerate longer periods of time in distance learning, he was daily tolerating less. So by the end of the first 10 days, he was barely making it through 10 minutes.
An Agonizing Decision
Pre-COVID, my son experienced great success in a wonderful ESE PreK program. He is an enthusiastic learner who thrives in an appropriate educational setting. And all summer, he eagerly put on his backpack and headed out the door to see his behavior therapist. Each afternoon when I’d pick him up, he would excitedly greet me while his therapist gave me mostly positive reports of his success that day.
So during the last 10 days of our failing distance-learning trial, my husband and I debated each night after our son went to sleep. What should we do? Should we tough it out with distance-learning and hope it gets better? Should we reconsider sending him for face-to-face instruction even though we also felt it would be clunky and awkward for him? How would he be able to tolerate wearing a mask all day? How would he understand what the teacher was saying when he couldn’t see her facial expressions? How would he understand the concept of socially distancing when he still hasn’t grasped the concept of personal space? Should we just continue with behavior therapy for another year and wait and see what school looks like in 2021?
The Advice My Mother Gave Me That Worked
Every day I would speak to my mother as I tried to talk through the best option. The best option for his behavioral and educational needs. The best option to protect our family as best we can from COVID-19. As well as taking into consideration the impact that decision would have on our mental health because the previous ten days of distance-learning had already started taking a toll.
Yesterday she told me this, “Make a pro and con list of all the choices and that should make the decision obvious.” A mother’s wisdom. Instead of researching online the likelihood of children catching and transmitting COVID-19 or how to help a child with autism learn to sit for long periods of time at a computer, how about take a pen and a piece of paper and write down my thoughts. Write; something I do every single day.
Using the pro/con approach helped us simplify the decision for our son’s educational setting amid these complex times. And we decided this, we don’t know what the outcome of distance learning or face-to-face instruction would be for our son given these unique circumstances, but we do know he thrives in behavior therapy. So will just keep doing what we’ve been doing. He will continue with behavior therapy and his kindergarten year will be at home in Mom School. Much of the world is in some way functioning in pause, so for now, we’ll pause along with it.
Maybe writing a pro/con list can help you make the “Education 2020” decision for your child that you’ve been agonizing over. Rather than relying on Dr. Google or listening online to hours of school board meeting debates, make the decision personal. And while I know your family’s decision may be different than the one we chose, that’s the beauty of choice. You get to make the decision that is the most right for your child and your family in this given moment of time.
“When in doubt, procrastinate.” – Steve Catt
Getty image by TShum.