CANTON, Ohio — As school districts make decisions about how students will learn this fall—remotely, in-person, or a combination of the two—some parents are concerned about children with special needs and what will be best for them.
As a single parent to three children with autism, Rob Gorski of Canton wants to err on the side of caution when it comes to sending kids back to school, until there’s a “viable vaccine,” with proven efficacy and “enough herd immunity to keep everybody safe.”
"I understand why some people are concerned, [why] parents are concerned,” Gorski said. “I'm concerned."
Gorski’s oldest son, Gavin, is 20 years old and no longer in school, but he is immunocompromised. His middle son, Elliott, who is going to be a freshman in high school, has asthma. His son Emmett will be in seventh grade this fall.
For his kids, he’s chosen remote learning, pulling them from the school they typically attend and enrolling them in a different, online-only school for this year.
“I am unwilling to risk my kids’ lives, even if it means that what I have to do is going to be harder or we have ground that we're gonna have to make up in the future because I know they'll be here to make up that ground,” Gorski said.
Laurie Cramer, executive director of the Autism Society of Greater Akron and mother to a 19-year-old with autism, said every student, family, and school must consider what’s best for their individual situations and choose the options that work for them.
"Ultimately, in the middle of a pandemic, as parents, I think we've all made peace with the fact that we're gonna have to pick and choose our battles here,” Cramer said.
She is concerned about the possibility of regression and other difficulties for students with special needs in particular, including social regression.
“I think it's really important to look at the option of […] providing an option for not being online and providing some in-person teaching,” Cramer said. “So many students access services through the school system. So their therapies, physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, these are really important learning years. We've not been able to do that over the last several months. But as we go into the school year, I think it's super important.”
Her son, at 19, is transitioning into adulthood and attends a private school for students who primarily have autism. He has an autoimmune condition, which makes him more vulnerable to COVID-19.
“He has been out of school since March of this year and at home,” Cramer said. “And we are right now in the process of assessing whether or not maybe he could go back to school two days a week and a home program for three days a week.”
She’s also assessing what’s best for her other son, who will be a senior in high school.
“I so badly want him to have a senior year, but also assessing what's best for him, what's best for the family when he has a brother with an autoimmune condition,” Cramer said. “I think we're just a small version of so many families.”
She emphasized the importance of each family doing what’s best for their individual student, whether that’s in-person learning or online learning.
At Akron Public Schools, leaders have made the decision to go online for the first nine weeks of school.
"In the big scheme of things, if it's going to prevent major illness, perhaps death for individuals involved, it's probably worth it,” said Tammy Brady, director of special education.
She noted that the district would “love to be able to bring all of our children back.”
“And when we return, if we do a blended model, we will look at that our students with the most significant disabilities would come back five days because we're able to keep them, they have smaller class sizes as well,” Brady said.
While she agreed concerns about regression are real, she said they are not limited to students with disabilities.
"We don't want anyone to lose skills, but it really is going to impact all children, not just students with disabilities,” Brady said.
Still, the district feels online learning is the best decision for now, given the circumstances. Brady said the high percentage of cases that came about through community spread indicates that students and staff would both be at risk if they came back to school in person.
And, since many students with disabilities have underlying conditions or are medically fragile, that increases the risks.
“We have just as many parents who are very fearful of sending their children, even the parents that children don't have underlying [conditions],” Brady said of the split in how parents feel. “They're just fearful for them to come to school."
Gorski understands his decision is personal.
“I’m not judging anybody,” Gorski said. “I feel like everybody [has] to do what they feel is right. But, you know, putting anybody in the classroom is going to put teachers at risk. It's going to put the kids at risk, anybody that they're living with at risk.”
He just hopes people will take COVID-19 seriously by wearing a mask, social distancing, and staying at home.
"And if we shut the schools down, we shut the schools down. We'll figure it out on the other end,” Gorski said. “But as long as we're all alive, we'll figure it out."
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