Novel solutions needed to educate all kids during COVID-19 pandemic

When COVID-19 rates began soaring earlier this summer, my gut told me Akron Public Schools would not return to in-person classes this fall.

The sudden shift to online learning this past spring caused many students to fall behind. I figured at the time that schools would do catch-up instruction in the fall, which is to say, I didn’t worry.

I’m still not concerned about our 10-year-old son, Leif. For nearly three months, he worked on lessons, created weekly by his teacher, with little supervision. No, he didn’t complete all his work, but we determined a pick-your-battles strategy on what to prioritize.

It’s hard, however, not to feel like we’ve failed our 8-year-old daughter, Lyra, who has Down syndrome. As with many kids with intellectual disabilities, we cannot set up Lyra’s lessons and leave her to complete them on her own. One of us has to sit with her the entire time.

I am reluctantly in charge of the homeschooling. In 2019, my partner Max and I worked about the same amount of hours, but he made 17 times more money than I did. Even though he’s better at it, my pennies to his dollars make it fiscally unfeasible for Max to be the one driving the schooling bus.

Here’s the honest truth: homeschooling young children bores me beyond belief. This is no epiphany. For years, I substitute taught all grades. Far and away, I preferred teaching middle schoolers and up rather than younger children.

Furthermore, I am not trained to teach a child with intellectual disabilities. Simple math is not simple for Lyra, and I am deeply grateful for the incredibly knowledgable, dedicated and patient team who, along with her classroom teachers, have worked with her at Case Elementary.

Parents nationwide are likewise anxious at having another semester of at-home instruction. Weekly parenting newsletters from a variety of national publications, including The Atlantic and The New York Times, are currently filled with articles on schooling this fall.

That Leif is not getting the same instruction as he did pre-COVID-19 does not keep me up at night. He’ll learn most of the curriculum while growing in other ways, too. He now helps out more around the house than before, cultivating a larger sense of responsibility. And he’s had time to burrow deep on many things scientific (all which he explains to me in excruciating detail).

I do not, however, feel as sanguine about Lyra not returning to school.

All her life, I have watched my fifth child work assiduously to master things I barely registered my other children acquiring. Lyra was a wee baby when she began speech, physical and occupational therapies. She first sat up on her own on June 29, 2013, just six weeks shy of her first birthday. I have only a general idea of when my four boys first did.

Similarly, the mastery of academic subjects for children with intellectual disabilities often requires far more work on the part of the child than for their neurotypical peers. In his book “Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity” author Andrew Solomon argues for the recognition of a common trait in people with Down syndrome: They are troopers. They persist where many of us would give up.

And so to lose even a portion of what Lyra has accomplished in her two years at Case Elementary feels devastating to me, like a face slap to all she’s worked to accomplish.

Other parents clearly feel the same. Last month, a judge in New York state decided that a child with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that required in-person services must still receive in-person services, so long as it can be done safely, even if the school district has chosen not to hold in-person classes.

When the Akron Public Schools’ school board first announced they were strongly considering having the school year begin online only, I reached out to Lyra’s interventionist (and my hero). I asked if she’d feel comfortable teaching students with intellectual disabilities in person, if only for a day or two a week. “Without a building full of students, I’d be willing to consider that,” she told me.

I immediately wrote to several school board members and asked them to please discuss the option of in-person instruction for students with intellectual disabilities. They said they would, but ultimately decided to keep the buildings closed to all students.

Safety is, of course, our ultimate concern and the nation’s Department of Education has been woefully negligent in providing substantive guidance during this pandemic. States and school boards are on their own to determine how to best proceed.

But a 100 percent return of students to in-person instruction or a 100 percent continuation of students receiving online instruction are not the only options. With problems we’ve never before experienced, this moment requires innovative problem solving.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on August 9, 2020.


Unemployment shuffle during pandemic is lesson in patience

Shortly after the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed at the end of March, my two eldest sons and I applied for unemployment, which, under current conditions, proved an exercise in tenacity.

My son Claude was an AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) this past year at the Summit Food Coalition. As his stipend was only $950 a month, he also worked part time as a server at Macaroni Grill. That job abruptly ended when all restaurants in Ohio were ordered to close March 15.

Typically, Claude’s earnings at Macaroni Grill would not have been high enough for him to collect unemployment, but that’s an important part of the CARES Act — many job situations that formerly would not qualify for unemployment benefits temporarily do.

After Claude and I applied, the state announced we had to wait for a special Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) website to launch. When it did, six weeks after the CARES Act passed, Claude’s claim was denied and he was the first among us to call, wait on hold for an hour or more and then talk at length with a caseworker at the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS).

Full stop: Among the three of us, we’ve now spoken with dozens of caseworkers at ODJFS. All have been incredibly helpful and friendly. Every. Single. One.

I’ve written before about being kind to workers in stores. The same rule applies to people trying to help you over the phone: Be nice.

Caseworkers are not to blame for the multitudinous problems getting unemployment claims properly processed. The system was designed to be difficult. After the Great Recession, Ohio’s unemployment system, like those in many other states, was intentionally reconstructed to treat every application as potentially fraudulent.

Then, when COVID-19 shut down most of the economy, Ohio’s unemployment system needed to pivot 180 degrees and treat every application as legitimate. At the same time, the system was receiving more applications each week than had been submitted in the previous several years.

Even at the best of times, government bureaucracy is not expeditious. Therefore, it’s amazing how many Ohio unemployment claims have been properly processed in the past three months.

Claude eventually had to close his original claim and reopen a new one. The week after he did, he received unemployment payments for all the weeks he’d been laid off.

Hugo had four jobs in Rochester, New York. Three at performance venues for the Eastman School of Music, where he was in his last year of college, and a music-outreach internship with Rochester Public Schools. When all four stopped on the same day in mid-March, Hugo moved back to Akron.

As Ohio is his permanent residence, Hugo filed his application for unemployment here. When it was denied, ODJFS was by then so swamped he could never reach a caseworker when he called. The automated recording would tell him, “Please try again later,” before disconnecting.

After three weeks of not getting through to ODJFS, Hugo decided to apply with the state of New York. Baddah-boom, baddah-bing, the following week he had his unemployment, including all retroactive payments.

Then there’s me. More than half my annual income is earned proofreading transcripts (about 2,000 pages a month) for court reporters. As with much of the economy, depositions and hearings also stopped suddenly March 15.

Like my boys, my unemployment application was initially declined. The system tried to process my claim against the University of Akron, where I was teaching part-time until the end of May.

I called ODJFS every week for two and a half months. When lucky, I was on hold for over an hour and then spoke with a caseworker. (The ODJFS hold music now fills my nightly dreams like a soundtrack.) More often, however, I was disconnected due to high call volume.

I’m still talking with my friends at ODJFS as I’ve not yet received my full retroactive payments, even after sending an email to backdatecovid@jfs.ohio.gov (if you haven’t gotten your retroactive money, send an explanation of your situation to that address). It seems my part-time UA employment is still confusing the system.

The second caseworker I spoke to in early April apologetically asked to pause for a moment so she could collect herself. She was crying. Not because of how I spoke to her, but because her job had become so stressful. Sitting at home without co-workers or managers to help answer questions, she worked diligently to try to find the correct answers for unprecedented issues.

I recently read that one reason we’ve not seen a larger spike in cases of depression during the pandemic is because there is added strength in knowing we are all going through this simultaneously.

As we struggle in these volatile times, patience, perseverance and especially kindness are what we all need. Both with others and ourselves.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, July 26, 2020.