In the early spring of 2020, our society was challenged in a way most of us had never experienced in our lifetimes. Nearly everything shut down, except essential services like hospitals, grocery stores, and schools. And that last one was wildly unprepared for an interruption of this scale.
Schools and teachers are the building blocks on which we place all our hope and energy for a brighter future for our children. But what happens when they’re unprepared for something like a pandemic? As a mother of two school-aged children, I can confidently say it’s been a learning experience for everyone involved. But for so many other families and so many other students, their experience was much more difficult.
I’m talking about the families of children with disabilities. Yes, everybody experienced disruptions in their day-to-day activities, but students with disabilities were relying on activities that were specialized for them — and in some cases, those just disappeared overnight. For those who aren’t familiar, many of the resources essential to giving these students the best educational experience are part of their IEP (Individualized Educational Plan). Unfortunately, IEPs have largely been designed to be done in person, and some of the activities don’t translate to an online forum.
Going from parent to part-time teacher was difficult for all of us, but even more so for parents who had children with disabilities learning online at home. It’s one thing to parent your child, but it’s an entirely different thing to teach them, and this was felt acutely for parents of children who live with disabilities.
According to some of the parents who were left home balancing parenting and teaching, most days the word “difficult” couldn’t even begin to cover it. In an interview with NPR, several parents expressed their frustration. “I just watched my child not learn and go backward,” says Rachael, whose daughter has an intellectual disability as well as attention deficit disorder. Another parent, Chrystal, whose son is deaf, blind, and nonverbal, echoed Rachel’s concern: “He requires a lot extra just to achieve a little bit of the same.”
It’s no fault of the students or their parents, or even their teachers for that matter. Scary Mommy spoke with a special education teacher in the Midwest who provides services for children in kindergarten through third grade. We talked about what were the most difficult challenges for her to navigate when doing the best for her students that she could. “The biggest struggle was access to technology, internet, and food for our families,” she said.
So here’s a thought, since special education relies in part on federal funding, let’s increase the amount Uncle Sam kicks in so we can at least get internet access to each and every student. In case — just in case, fingers crossed — we ever run into a global disaster again like the one we’re coming out of.
The pandemic impacted students with disabilities disproportionately, but even before 2020, there was a significant discrepancy between the services these students needed compared with what they actually qualified for. In fact, since 1975, nationwide guidelines have been in place to make sure every student received a free and quality education. Federal legislation known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was put in place to keep a level playing field between children of all abilities. But clearly, it isn’t working the way it should when students with disabilities aren’t able to progress forward or maintain their educational experience.
As it stands, the federal government has a commitment to pay 40% of the average cost for every special education student. Great, right? But in 2020, they only paid 13%, which was the lowest amount since 2000. Literally, in the last 20 years, they’ve never met their 40% commitment or even 20%, and I’m calling bullshit. How can schools and educators provide the level of education and assistance to students with disabilities if they don’t have the funds they are supposed to?
I’m not one for politics (okay, that’s a lie!) but it looks like the current administration has heard loud and clear what parents, educators, and advocates have been saying for years. According to the U.S. budget for the 2022 fiscal year, funding for special education will increase, adding 2.7 billion dollars in funding for IDEA, and it’s about damn time.
Education is the cornerstone of our society. Quality educational experiences are supposed to be guaranteed for every child, regardless of how they learn or what resources they need to complete their education. Governors, Congress, Senators hear the pleas of parents and educators of children with disabilities. Follow through on the promises you make to our kids about the quality of their education. After all, they are the future.
Educators, thank you for doing what is in your control. It’s not always easy to get kids excited about learning. Especially when it’s unrelated to Roblox or Fornite, but your unrelenting commitment to your students isn’t lost on them, and as parents, we see you. We trust you as the experts to nurture our children’s young minds, even when they learn differently from the rest of their peers.
Parents, you are the real MVPs. Advocating for your children’s rights to quality education isn’t an easy task, and it isn’t one you should be left to take on alone. Whether your children have a disability or not, make your voices heard loud and clear by your school district, your county, your state, and your nation. Every child deserves to expand their horizons, learn, and grow through their education.