There is no doubt about it that we are swimming in unchartered waters right now. COVID-19 has shaken up the entire world and caused countless companies, organizations, and educational facilities to either close or switch to a remote structure. With the current state of the country schools, teachers, parents, and students are struggling to find a balance. We at PA Parent and Family Alliance wanted to sit down with a parent who is finding their footing in these uncertain times. She has two sons her youngest is a senior in a public high school and the older son is a senior at a day school where he will be receiving special education until he is 21. Her sons experiences with how their schools have handled this switch to remote learning have been starkly different and has left her feeling like special education has not been made a priority. The parent, Erin Smith, explains how she is handling the current situation and what advice she has for parents who are also in her shoes.
Smith mentioned that her children have been out of school officially since March 12th and March 13th. "My youngest son is very worried that his grades might get affected. He worked very hard during his high school years taking AP and High Honors courses so his GPA is over a 4.0. Now AP tests are via teleconference live and are cut to 45 minutes as opposed to the 3 hours they were supposed to be. He is very stressed that his GPA could drop and credits he was hoping to carry with him to college will not be something he attains. Add to that that he was laid off from his job that he was using to save for college," said Smith. She mentioned that her youngest son's school has been doing a "flexible instruction day program" since the day they closed and on April 1st.
She is not worried about how her youngest son will handle online school, "He has always been a great student and I know that he will get on a good schedule." While she has no doubt that her son will be okay with the transition to remote learning she did note that his mental health has suffered during these times, like many of us.
"Most of the time he is sad and depressed, not being able to hang with his friends, be with his girlfriend, go out and work. Being stressed about his older brother getting sick. But he is talking to his friends all of who are going through the same thing. His girlfriend and best friend both have conditions that make them high risk so they too are in isolation, so that helps him ease and makes him want to stay home for their safety not only his. He is constantly communicating with his friends via texting, zoom and online gaming. They even do their school work together."
When it comes to her older son, things have been different. Smith mentioned that for a while her oldest son's special education had been "nonexistent." "I understand that this whole situation is something no one has experienced. Dealing with these circumstances and trying to figure things out is hard for everyone, but I expected more communication from his school, even if it’s just to check on how everyone was doing. We did receive emails from the school updating us on what they were doing to start online services and even asked for a survey but that wasn’t until last week. I didn’t hear from my son’s teacher though until this Monday (3-30), and I thought that was a little shocking. I would have expected a call or email asking to see how he was and what were our concerns, so she could work for a plan. Now, we are still waiting for a plan since she contacted us yesterday. I feel this week we could have started online education with a plan if they would have contacted us for the last two weeks or even last week. This is time wasted in my opinion, " said Smith.
The lack of communication is what concerned Smith the most. She wishes that her son's teacher would have reached out to them and asked what their concerns were, and offered some suggestions on how they could keep their kids on track with what they were learning before school was closed. The gap between when the school closed and when his special education began back up again, remotely, was 16 days. She said that this has left her son incredibly bored but more importantly it broke a very essential routine that he was used to and now it's going to be hard to get him back on a routine. During these 16 days, he had no contact with any of his teachers or therapists that were staples in his everyday life before this all began. To children; especially a child with a social, emotional, behavioral or mental health challenge, a routine is essential and Smith is concerned with the lack of routine and communication they have received.
When asked whether she feels like her son's special education was made a priority, she said compared to her younger son's education; no. If she looks back on the last two weeks at what kind of education, and communication both of her son's schools have provided she feels like her son who receives special education services has gotten the shorter end of the stick. Smith explained what she would have to say to a person who doesn't feel like special education is necessarily a priority right now, "I think all education should be a priority, special education should be just as important. I know this is hard on everyone, not only are we all dealing with our own isolation issues but also the ones living at home with us and our family members who do not live with us and could be high risk, etc. We all have our issues and difficulties dealing with this, but as an educator, you also have an obligation to your students. If you suggestions contact the parents directly and we can figure it out. We know the answers are not all there, but we shouldn’t have waited two weeks to hear from the teacher."
As for her advice for parents who are struggling to get their children the special education that they deserve she advises them to contact the school and the teacher and do your research. Utilize online resources like the PEAL Center to make sure your child or children are getting the education they are entitled to. It was not until this week (3-30) that she was able to schedule therapy sessions for her son. While her son is coping okay right now it was very stressful for him to have to wait that unnecessarily long time for therapy, and speech therapy. This could have caused a regression in the progress that she, her husband, and her son have made and it was frankly not acceptable that he had to wait that long for the critical services that he needs. Jones strongly urges every parent who is in a similar boat and is struggling to have their child's special education seem like a priority to advocate for their child.
Yes, these are challenging times that everybody is trying to figure out but the difference in the way her two sons have been prioritized since the shutdown speaks volumes about how special education is viewed by many. Right now every kind of education should be considered essential and while many educators are just as confused and uncertain as parents and students it is imperative that special education is held with the same kind of regard as all education.
If you are a parent who is struggling to fill up your child's day with educational activities and keep them stimulated to check out our #Hometogether Resource page.
If families want to learn how to support their special education students join Allegheny Family Network's webinar, Extreme Change in Routine: Supporting Parents through COVID -19 featuring Attorney Jennifer O. Price of Jennifer Price Law on Thursday, April 9th at 2 pm. Hear how special education requirements can be met during school closures, ask questions regarding special education and more. Limited time for Q and A will be available at the end of the presentation. Click here to register.
**Names have been changed**