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  • Aaron Wright

I'm Sorry Virtual School Didn't Work For You and Your Child; Can We Be Allies Now?

When I heard the complaints from parents about the problems and inadequacies of virtual school over the last year and a half, I mumbled to myself, “welcome to the club.” What families of disabled children have had to cope with for far too many years is the chronic inaccessibility of an education; and the great many consequences this can have on their children.

There are approximately seven million children enrolled in special education nationally and when schools physically shut down at the beginning of the pandemic many of the services these children require were drastically scaled back or discontinued outright. Some schools struggled to even figure out how to hold an Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings with families in a virtual forum. And certain key services like occupational and physical therapy became impractical or difficult to deliver virtually. As the pandemic spread, so too did the faults in the mechanisms that are supposed to support disabled children.

American families collectively realized and began to voice the critical roles schools play in our society. They are a social outlet, scaffold for routine and structure in a child’s life, community checkpoint, source of meals, and often a point of community pride.

During the last school year, there was an approximate 3% drop in K-12 enrollment and a 13% decrease in the number of preschool and kindergarten enrollments. Child Find is a central pillar of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). It mandates that public schools actively seek out and identify disabled children irrespective whether or not they are enrolled in school; or in a public, private, or home school setting. Because there are no real consequences to ignoring Child Find, most school systems rely upon teachers and parents to make the majority of special education referrals. If a child isn’t physically in school, or not enrolled at all, disabled children simply remain invisible, unsupported, and under-educated.

As all of the states have formally recognized the importance of in-person learning and scramble to find a mixture of a plan that strikes both political appeal and an appearance of safety, the notion of excluding children from another year of school has become a point of bipartisan agreement. Most parents simply do not have the time, training, or financial freedom to fully be their child’s teacher and tutor. Yet for many parents of disabled children, this is the norm; stretched thin and filling in the gaps of a learning situation that is woefully inadequate. These parents are intuitively aware that their child will graduate from high school at a much lower rate, their post K-12 job prospects will be drastically reduced, and their income potential will be significantly stunted.

Yet for some of the twenty percent of children who are estimated to be disabled, remote learning has meant access for the first time in their lives. Reimagining teaching has meant the ability to participate in curriculum and instruction without the constraints and the demands of a physical classroom or traditional teaching methods for some disabled children; and we should keep this type of access available for those who need it. But for far too many over the last year-and-a-half, the barriers to an education have only grown.

One of the major cries coming from parents, professionals, and other interest groups regarding the resumption of in-person learning has been the lost ground on academics and the emotional consequences of being isolated from peers. These are the same issues that have plagued disabled children for decades; anxiety, depression, and issues related to self-esteem.

Disabled children are children too, but to be blunt, disabled children have never been viewed as peers. Not because their classmates are inherently biased against them, but because for far too long parents and teachers have had to engage a system that focuses upon failure first as a predicate for access. If a non-disabled child is to ever see a disabled child as a peer, they have to first actually see a supported peer in the classroom.

But once we return to “normal,” we need to remember that “normal” has never worked for the disability community. Any educational access formally recognized in a child’s IEP or hard-won in a due process procedure is not transferable to all disabled children, and as such, fixing the system will never be achieved if parents have to repeatedly and individually fight for access on a child-by-child basis. Imagine having to fight to reopen schools on a family-by-family basis, without the benefit of a coalition or lobbying group.

But this is the actual and tangible difference in how disabled children are treated in schools. Access for one does not carry over to access for their peers or any similarly situated child that follows. If we do nothing to ameliorate the immediate harm being done to disabled children by fixing a flawed and arcane system, the harm will be unending. As we begin a new school year with battles about masks mandates and vaccination status, perhaps we can unify around the idea of just how critical access to a classroom is for all children and fully re-imagine inclusion in education.

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