In The Politics of Autism, I discuss the day-to-day challenges facing autistic people and their families. Those challenges get far more intense during disasters. And coronavirus is proving to be the biggest disaster of all.
In the age of this new and deadly virus, most American school districts have closed their doors, hoping remote learning can serve as a replacement in the coming weeks or even months. But few districts have figured out how to extend this online learning and other critical services to the 7 million children with disabilities.Corey Mitchell at Education Week:
Federal law requires school systems to provide students with disabilities an appropriate education. Unable to meet that requirement, some districts are opting not to offer online instruction to anyone because they are unable to offer it to everyone.
Meantime, parents are at home, struggling to care for their children, often while juggling work and care for siblings, with no idea how long the national experiment in mass home schooling will last.
It’s daunting to even think about, said Michael McKenzie of Wilmette, Ill., who has an eighth-grade son who is on the autism spectrum. At school, his son has a huge support team: a vision therapist, speech therapist, occupational therapist, learning behavioral therapist and various teachers in the classroom, adaptive special education and special subjects.
How will McKenzie and his wife replicate all that? “The best we can,” he said.
The Northshore School District in suburban Seattle—a hotspot in the national coronavirus outbreak—managed to roll out its districtwide distance learning plan for 25,000-plus students ahead of a mandatory five-week statewide shutdown.
In the weeks since campuses closed there, staff got thousands of tablets and hundreds of internet hotspots into the hands of students—only to suspend operations because school leaders fear they could be in violation of state and federal mandates for providing equitable services.
In a video message released Tuesday, Kenneth Marcus, the education department's assistant secretary for civil rights, said: "Online learning is a powerful tool for educational institutions as long as it is accessible for everyone. Services, programs, and activities online must be accessible to persons, including people with disabilities, unless equally effective alternate access is provided."
Districts face the potential loss of federal funding if they fail to provide accommodations for students with disabilities. They also face the risk of complaints, and potential legal action, from parents and disability rights advocates for running afoul of federal civil rights laws.
"The first things [schools] are thinking of is 'Are we going to get ourselves in trouble?''' said Phyllis Wolfram, the executive director of the Council of Administrators of Special Education.
But the situation is a Catch-22: Districts could face the same issues if they refuse to do anything at all.