Many parents, guardians and caregivers of special needs children are grappling with the difficult choice of whether or not their children should attend school in the fall.
When the Texas Education Agency (TEA) released the results of the spring 2021 State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness (STAAR), it revealed the grades declined for students who participated in virtual learning compared to those who learned in person. This prompted the agency to discontinue state funding for remote-only options for the upcoming school year, leaving many school districts to announce the return to 100% in-person instruction.
The transition to pre-pandemic life won’t be a simple one, especially for children of color and special needs students, considering many parents prefer to keep their children at home away from the risks.
“My daughter has multiple impairments. She is not self-dependent, and her immune system isn’t very strong,” said Patricia Onyeise, a mother of a 20-year-old daughter of special needs. “She has autism, problems with speech, and a heart complication that has impacted her mobility. I’m worried that when she returns to Cypress High School she might remove her mask and expose herself to the risks of COVID-19. She is very active and consistently needs monitoring.”
According to a National Bureau of Economic Research study, the reopening of Texas schools last year “gradually but substantially accelerated” the spread of COVID-19 in communities. The report also implied that “the school reopenings led to at least 43,000 additional COVID-19 cases and 800 additional fatalities within the first two months.”
In addition, most students with physical disabilities and immunocompromised systems found it easier to learn from home. Students with disabilities make up more than 500,000 students in the Texas public education school system. These include students who are mentally, physically and developmentally disabled and are learning in ways that are comfortable for them.
COVID-19 economically and mentally impacted communities of color. Students who live in multigenerational households worry about infecting other family members. Learning from home could mean saving money on childcare and focusing on needs specifically important to the child.
“I had brain and spinal surgery some years ago. I don’t have employer-sponsored insurance and my disability checks aren’t enough to get by, Onyeise said. “Pat will soon outgrow the public high school system and the struggle to find a private special education school that can attend to her needs has been difficult. Taking care of her and myself is a challenge. I know she misses socializing with her friends, but her safety is my priority as well.”
Raquelle Lewis is equally terrified at the thought of having her son return to school. Lewis’s son, Andrew, is a 14-year-old 9th-grade HISD student. Her son has physical, visual and cognitive impairments that require one-on-one attention. She says he is a very “medically complex child” and is vigilant with his health. Andrew’s parents both work full-time, with the extra support from Lewis’ mother to care for him daily.
“Our children typically have fewer resources. There is a lot of room for improvement in schools,” Lewis said. There will always be shortcomings, but as scary as it is, I look forward to Andrew reacquainting with life away from home.”
Dr. Carole Parker, associate professor at the Department of Counseling at Texas Southern University, said that health and safety aren’t the only factors that impact Black families.
“We can’t exclude that there are social and systemic disadvantages. Parents could be protecting their children from negative effects of bullying and discriminatory microaggression from other students and teachers,” she explained. “There is a need for schools to be sensitive culturally but also in terms of psycho-educational needs. Black people are often portrayed in a negative light and it doesn’t escape.”
Dr. Parker said that special needs children, depending on their disability, generally receive regular instruction to be included with other classmates, special education teachers and one-on-one instructions. So, when a parent decides for their child to learn from home, they take on all three professional responsibilities.
She also said parents should be more open-minded to work alongside schools to understand what academic support is offered. “Sometimes schools may not know which direction to go, and it’s important to look for community-based partnerships to support all students, said Dr. Parker. “A parent may have fewer resources at home, COVID-19 caused massive job losses, businesses closed and now they will worry about how to juggle sustaining a home.”
In September 2020, HISD received harsh criticism from TEA’s investigation on the school district’s special education system. The 88-page report stated that HISD violated state and federal laws designed to ensure adequate support for students with disabilities. The investigation found repeated evidence of systemic issues dating back to at least 2011 citing the district’s failure to take equally systemic steps to remediate. Though HISD disapproved of the findings of this report, the school district says it has plans in place to support special needs students this Fall.
Houston ISD is expected to spend almost $1.2 billion in Education and Secondary School Education Relief funds in the American Rescue and Relief Plan Act passed by congress to support students who fell behind during the pandemic. Superintendent Millard House III introduced a plan to outline their top priorities and special education was on the list. According to the plan, $50 million would go to special education.
The Defender reached out to the HISD for a breakdown on the use of the special education funds, but they weren’t available for comment.