Another Needless COVID Casualty

NEW YORK -

Ask any parent or educator of a child with autism what the most critical component for their development is – the answer will always be stability and consistency. Children with autism thrive on a schedule, when they can “predict the future” and know what each day will look like before it begins. To an extent this applies to all children, but even more so to those with special needs.

Now imagine how the last eight months have been for these children. Wrenched away from their routine with almost no warning, they were told they must hunker down at home, leaving them without access to the same educational resources as they had become accustomed to. Many of them have other siblings at home occupying their parent’s attention, or parents who are working in or outside the home. During March, April, and May, as the entire world contended with the COVID-19 outbreak, thousands of autistic children regressed. One parent reported to me that her eight year old child lost the ability to speak and to use the toilet; another told me that her teenager has been unable to engage appropriately with others, frequently dissolving into tantrums.

Yet during the height of the pandemic, people understood that sacrifices had to be made. Parents of special needs children endured enormous challenges and sacrifices to help keep their children and the community at large safe.

But as we entered the summer months and restrictions were slowly lifted, parents allowed themselves to be cautiously optimistic. Some of their children were able to attend a day camp, providing some semblance of order. Other children were reunited with their therapists and providers, who began the long and arduous battle to restore their development. (Although that reunion didn’t happen for many providers, who have remained unpaid since the start of the pandemic, and are thus left with the option to work for free, or abandon the children that they are so devoted to.)

When school began again in September, autistic and special needs children were finally seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. Regression was slowly beginning to reverse as order began to be restored.

And then new restrictions were imposed.

With nearly no warning, little guidance, and distinctly unscientific criteria, the doors to schools across “red and orange zones” slammed shut. Classroom learning returned to the computer, a nearly impossible option for children with special needs. The support that these children so desperately yearn for was snatched away again, leaving them emotionally and developmentally damaged. Parents, some of whom were finally returning to work after months at home, were plunged back into a world of uncertainty, unable to cope as they again were forced to act as teachers and therapists. Many parents have told me that they feel close to breaking down, as they have become imprisoned in their homes again.

It is impossible to understand the scope of long term damage that these shutdowns will have on our children, and specifically on children with special needs. They have absorbed a deeply unsettling lesson, something that children should never have to fear – that they cannot count on their parents, therapists, or their school to provide stability.

Special education services are essential, period. I join with parents and special education teachers and providers across the city in calling for this essential service to be recognized by the city and state. Frankly, I believe that all schools are essential, and that they should remain open. We are a long way from March, and we have a much stronger understanding of the virus and its impacts at this stage. We should understand how to combine safety with the most pressing needs for our children. And certainly this applies even more so for special education, where the negative impacts are substantial and well documented.

Health and safety of course must be a priority – but by nature, special education classes are conducted in a “bubble” of sorts, with small classes and limited engagement with other school programs. Furthermore, health concerns do not begin and end with COVID-19. Vulnerable children deserve that same consideration and care for their essential health and therapeutic needs.

I cannot and will not accept the utter disregard for nuance that is apparent in Governor Cuomo’s COVID policies. Well-meaning adults should be able to sit down and have a conversation about the necessity of special education services, with the understanding that a one-size policy does not fit all.

We are not in March anymore; it’s October, and the time for fear-based policies has passed. Weighing the needs of New York children must come with thoughtful and compassionate care. Special education is essential, and must be declared so. Parents deserves some clarity, as opposed to the constant barrage of mixed messaging and combative policy-making from government decision-makers.