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.

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