As this school year begins, I must admit I am more nervous than usual about what happen for my daughter Cassie. Cassie is entering 3rd grade. Cassie has been given the labels of Cerebral Palsy, Sensory Processing Disorder, global developmental delays, nonverbal and behavioral concerns. We were already concerned, as Cassie will not wear a mask or any face covering. She is very sensory defensive around her face. How could she be safe and how are others safe around her as she “sprays” when she is happy or excited. However, with remote learning, our experience at the end of the last school year was not helpful at all. We can only hope this year is better.
When the school year abruptly ended in March, we were not surprised there was not a good plan for kids with significant disabilities like Cassie. From March to June we received a written weekly plan advising us to show YouTube videos of songs and read to our daughter. We were also to show her one color and one letter a week. That was it. The full scope of remote learning for our growing little girl. No speech recommendations, no occupational therapy recommendations, no physical therapy recommendations, nothing. During the remainder of the school year, no one reached out remotely to check in on Cassie or offer instruction. Just a weekly email with a written plan, not in any format that Cassie may understand.
However, our experience for our son, who also has an IEP for reading difficulties, was completely the opposite. The outreach and effort from his teachers were phenomenal, and their ability to switch gears, find resources and still engage in active learning was exemplary. In many ways our son excelled, with the ability to truly learn and complete tasks in his own time frames and do his work how he needed to do it.
The difference as we see it was a difference in expectations. There was no question that my son needed to keep learning and growing, even though it is very challenging for him at times. However, there was little to no expectation that my daughter be engaged and included in learning. My children are at the same school and received totally different learning expectations and experiences. For both children, we expected ourselves to assist our children’s learning process and provide the structure and routine our children would need to learn. However, we had partners with our son and were left alone to figure it out with our daughter.
Ensuring equity is not just a lofty goal, it is a basic need for all kids. However, it is the children with the most significant needs that are not included in the plan. Some kids may not find the district provided laptop the most useful tool in their learning journey, but specialized equipment is not offered. This could be something as simple as an iPad, the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) utilized at school, access to remote libraries with books that read to the child, etc. Parents are not being asked what they need: they are given what the district decides to give.
Districts, teachers, specialists, families, and kids need to work together to figure out how to do this, with the expectation that all kids will be included in learning, social interactions and engagement in school. Remote, in-person, or a combination of both all require thoughtful planning and partnership.
In response to the thousands of experiences across the country similar to those of our family, TASH’s statement, “Inclusive and Remote Learning during COVID-19” outlines key assertions and activities needed to ensure equity for all students.
Jennifer Lengyel is the President of the TASH Board of Directors and the Executive Director of Total Living Concept in Kent, Washington, a person centered agency supporting over 70 individuals in different capacities to live, work and become valued community members. She has been working and advocating for individuals with disabilities to live in their own homes for the last 24 years.