Juggling a job while being a child’s co-teacher is a struggle for any parent, but families who have students with disabilities say they’re seeing the worst of the downside of removing students from in-person classes.
Amanda Marshall and her son Austin are sitting in a white walled bedroom preparing for a 9 a.m. virtual morning meeting. Marshall is a single mom and counselor at a local Catholic school. Austin, is a third grader, at Murrell School in East Nashville, a school for students with learning disabilities.
On Monday, Austin began his morning with a light breakfast and fed a stick of leafy greens to his pet hamster, Rocky. At times, Austin enjoys showing Rocky to his classroom during his Microsoft Teams meetings. But other times, he’s not the biggest fan of having the hamster in the background of his daily check-ins.
“It’s embarrassing,” says Austin, as he signals his mom to move the hamster cage out of his camera sight.
Unlike general education kids, Austin has an intimate group of classmates. As one of more than 10,000 exceptional education students in Metro Nashville Public Schools, he also has a specialized teacher and a personal aide. It’s a setup that comes with his individualized education plan, or IEP — and designed to meet the demands of his specific needs.
But the benefits of these personalized supports haven’t translated well to the online environment, his mother says.
“You can see when teachers are trying to get him to chat in the chat box. He can’t write the word ‘blue’ without me there spelling it out for him,” say Marshall. “He can’t read what the teachers are writing for him. So even in those moments that they’re trying to help him and engage him, it’s not working virtually.”
This was even more apparent the time his virtual learning websites wouldn’t load and his webcam started glitching.
“For him, it was the cause of an epic meltdown,” says Marshall. “He was actually in here in the living room, crying the last half of the day saying, ‘I’m losing all my smartness. I can’t do this. Nothing is working right.’ It was just too much for him to handle.”
Marshall says she’s been scrambling to get Austin the resources he needs since the spring. While some students may have received support during the initial COVID-19 shutdown, Austin didn’t, she says. Austin is performing below grade level in math and reading, and Marshall is concerned that the absence of in-person support will lead to an even bigger regression.
“I understand that the challenges the district’s leadership are facing is very difficult,” says Marshall. “At the same time, kids with special needs have really been left behind.”
But the district says they’re actively working to address these issues.
“We definitely have not been sitting idly by,” says Tieawasa Hodack, the director of exceptional education at Metro Schools.
While the district may not meet the expectations of every parent at the moment, Hodack says, the goal is to accommodate parents as best they can.
Since the start of the school year, the district has been offering virtual therapy sessions, finalizing students’ IEPs and meeting with parents.
“We want parents to always continue advocating. And through IEP meetings, what is it that your child needs? Is it more access to technology? Is it more asynchronous opportunities for your child outside of the instructional day because … virtual is not working?” says Hodack.
Exceptional educational parents and district leaders are holding a virtual town hall Thursday evening to discuss what to do next.
The district is also excepted to announce Tuesday whether they’ll resume some form of in-person classes after Labor Day. The exceptional education department says it’s weighing the option, separately, of allowing students with disabilities to return to in-person classes. It also began testing that will assess any learning losses from the spring and summer.
Still, some parents say what the district is currently offering to exceptional education families isn’t good enough.
“We’re not having an equal education right now,” says Tiffany Acuff, a parent and chair of the MNPS Exceptional Education Family Advisory Council. “That’s not to say that there aren’t being efforts made today. I wish those efforts were made in March when we knew about this issue.”
Acuff says while she’s been working with her son’s teacher to develop goals, the district has yet to come up with a practical plan to meet her son’s learning needs. They had months to address the needs of families, she says, but fell short of delivering even though they’re now weeks into the school year.
She says that equal education will be nearly impossible without in-person, one-on-one supports for their students. Currently, the district’s stance is that teachers and paraprofessionals shouldn’t enter students’ homes, although there have been instances of parents paying paraprofessionals directly to offer in-person support.
‘He Is Worthy’
Overall, Acuff says, the situation is an issue that stretches beyond the classroom.
Many families of students with disabilities don’t have access to outside help like babysitters, learning pods, tutoring, nonprofits and church groups — due to their children’s learning and emotional disabilities.
For some parents, they have to choose between quitting their jobs in order to better educate their kids, or supplying an income. Both she and Amanda Marshall are considering leaving their jobs so that they can be more hands-on with their children — although Acuff notes that for many families, that won’t be an option. If they can’t afford to hire caregivers and specialized help, the school district is their only hope.
And for exceptional ed students, she says failing to give them the supports they need could led to devastating consequences.
“My son is huge, in terms of size. He doesn’t look like an 8-year-old,” says Acuff. “And he’s Black, so the world has so many expectations of him already. And so for the district to be failing him academically, are we just putting him in the school-to-prison pipeline?”
Like many exceptional education families, Acuff says the grace that was awarded to the district ran out at the start of the school year.
“It’s hard to just constantly be fighting for your kid,” says Acuff. “It’s hard to get people to see that he is worthy, that his life matters, that even if he can’t meet the same academic standards, that doesn’t mean that he’s not worth the same effort.”