Civil Rights

Wrong Answer: Akron says yes to sports, no to in-person classes for students with disabilities

The Akron Beacon Journal’s front-page headline on Tuesday read, “Why are all these parents so happy? First day of school brings joy in Summit County.” Unfortunately, that was not the case in the county’s largest district, Akron Public Schools.

Initially, APS announced a blended program for the fall. Pre-school through third grade students would have been in the school buildings five days a week, with all other grades receiving a combination of in-person and (mostly) online instruction.

Older students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) were encouraged to attend in person more frequently than students without IEPs, while all students had the option of 100% online instruction.

That was the right model.

But then, in late July, the APS school board and administration reversed course and announced the first nine-week grading period of the school year would be entirely online for all students.

The best explanation I’ve been given is that with a large, urban district, many parents are essential workers. Fearing a second wave of COVID-19 would force schools to close only a few weeks into the first term, the board thought such a potential shift would make it difficult for these families to plan.

There are a few problems with this approach.

First of all, precisely because many APS parents are essential workers, many young students have no adults available to help them with online instruction when they need it. I’ve heard stories from teachers across the district of second and third grade students helping their younger siblings access their Chromebook lessons and also walking to school alone to pick up their free lunches.

Secondly, the regular flu season will kick in roughly the same time the second grading period begins, most likely making it harder to begin in-person instruction at that time.

This first grading period, before the regular flu arrives and while the weather remains mild enough for open windows and outdoor instruction, should have been used to help our most vulnerable students catch up.

Why? Because evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that remote-only learning is detrimental to students with special educational needs (see “Remote Learning Doesn’t Support Special Education Learners“).

That is why my daughter’s father and I have hired a tutor, currently at our own expense, to meet with 8-year-old Lyra, who has Down syndrome, and other students in an outdoor classroom in our yard five mornings a week.

Furthermore, many teachers have expressed a willingness to hold in-person instruction in the school buildings with the children who most need it, including some who have worked with Lyra.

But the school board and district administrators will not budge and have repeatedly denied the request for Lyra and other students with disabilities to be taught in the buildings.

Safety first!

Then, in a special meeting called last Tuesday, the school board reversed another prior decision. This time one that had cancelled all contact sports for the fall term. Now, all sport are allowed to proceed. Why? Because parents demanded it.

According to APS board member Derrick Hall, whom I both voted for and wrote to about the need for children with disabilities to receive in-person instruction this fall, the board changed course on sports because, “We had a very sort of loud and active parental component to this. There were multiple petitions that went around that had several thousand signatures,” Hall said.

He further elaborated, “I think that being a member of a community elected board, it’s important to sort of take [the] pulse and sort of notice when you have that kind of activism going on around an issue.”

Hmm. So somehow athletes at who are running, tackling, tagging, sliding to bases and yelling can remain safe in a global pandemic but kids with IEPs quietly receiving in-person instruction in mostly empty school buildings cannot?

I call foul.

The district’s policy openly flouts the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal law that in July a federal judge said has not in any way been watered down due to COVID. He specifically stated that students with IEPs requiring in-person instruction must receive in-person instruction, so long as it can be done safely.

While I question the safety of contact sports in our K-12 schools— even major league teams using all the protective measures money can buy have had COVID outbreaks — I don’t begrudge the parents who want their kids to play.

But educating our students, particularly those with disabilities, should always be the school district’s No. 1 priority. Instead, bending to loud pressure, the board has prioritized playing games over educating minds.

Let me be clear: There is no federal law that says sports must carry on, but there is one that says in-person instruction, when part of an IEP, must. Clearly, our most vulnerable students don’t all have parents who can mount a squeaky-oil campaign to force our school board into compliance with federal law.

But a small group of attorneys can.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, September 6, 2020.


Launching into the first COVID fall semester

Panicky scenarios are the main fare of my brain’s nightly programming. As both a parent of elementary and college-aged students and a faculty member at the University of Akron, the screenwriter of my dreams has plenty of material with which to work.

My eldest son, Claude, is now at the George H.W. Bush School of Government and Public Service in College Station, Texas, where it is both literally and metaphorically scorching. Claude runs at 5 a.m. to beat the brutal south-Texas heat, while nearby Houston and Austin are COVID red zones.

My third son, Jules, developed chronic fatigue syndrome after a bout of mononucleosis two years ago. Blood work determined that both his sister, Lyra, and I also had the Epstein-Barr virus (the cause of mono) at the same time, but without symptoms.

For Jules, however, it triggered his chronic immunosuppression, which makes him more vulnerable to a deleterious case of COVID-19 should he contract it. And yet all summer, he giddily planned to move into his first apartment near Ohio State University, located in Franklin County, Ohio’s king of COVID-infested counties. It’s good that Jules likes his four roommates, because they are all taking most of their classes online.

Leif, a rising fifth grader, was set to have all-day, in-person classes. Then, on August 11, we learned he will be taught online yet again. One improvement is that, unlike in the spring, his class will have synchronous instruction.

But it is the lack of in-person instruction for first-grader Lyra that concerns me the most. We continue advocating for Lyra’s legal right, as a child with an individualized educational plan (IEP), to receive in-person instruction even when a school district primarily conducts remote learning, so long as it can be done safely. In a case decided last month by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, the laws on this matter were unequivocally upheld.

While we believe we will find a workable solution with the Akron Public Schools without needing to petition the courts, we cannot continue to forestall Lyra’s instruction until we’ve collectively determined said solution.

Teaching pods may seem like a novel idea born of a novel virus. But they aren’t. Home-schoolers have used teaching pods for years with multiple families bringing their kids together so that different parents can teach subjects they have expertise in or together they hire professional instructors.

Recent articles describing teaching pods point out that they can exacerbate inequities inherent in America’s public schools. Parents of means can hire instructors, leaving children from poorer families behind. In working to help our daughter, we do not want to widen any educational gaps at her school.

Therefore, we are in the process of hiring a special interventionist who has worked with Lyra before and is eager to work with her and other students now. Together, we are reaching out to other Case Elementary families whose children on IEPs requiring in-person services are close in age to Lyra.

The risk of contracting COVID is not as great outdoors as it is indoors, particularly if other protocols, such as mask wearing and hand washing, are followed. Therefore, we have purchased a dining tent, the kind you might find at an outdoor wedding reception, and for the next several weeks hope to hold class in our yard.

As for teaching at UA, I worry about many of my students, particularly the at-risk freshman in my composition courses, for whom this year may be their one best opportunity to change the trajectory of their lives. If they lose this chance, will they ever have another?

Last spring, when classes suddenly went from in person to online, about one third of my students disappeared. I emailed them all, multiple times. Some apologized and said they’d start logging in for our virtual classes, but never did. Others never responded at all.

Who knows what the students who ghosted went home to? Did they have adequate internet service and a dedicated computer? Space to effectively study and write? Were they placed in charge of taking care of younger siblings, also home from school, while their parents worked essential jobs? Did they themselves become essential workers?

I remind myself that the anticipation of what next semester will bring causes me more anxiety than will the reality, once it shakes out. Whatever scenario we find ourselves in, when it arrives we can accordingly address the actual issues at hand.

That is, unless an actual issue becomes many of us contracting COVID-19 (I agreed, perhaps foolishly, to teach in person). That many members of the UA community may become ill, as has happened at many universities around the country where classes have already started, is the one potentiality I dread the most.

Please wish all students, faculty and staff the best of luck for this school year. We need it.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, August 23, 2020.