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.


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