I have sensory processing disorder.
My nervous system doesn’t work quite as well as it should, and I have poor fine motor skills as a result. That means tying my shoes can be an interesting endeavor, and I fall a lot. Today, it is nothing serious, and nobody notices unless I inform them.
But as a child, I required a substantial amount of assistance. My development was delayed (I couldn’t speak in full sentences until I was four years old), and I required intensive speech and occupational therapy to catch up to my peers. The services provided by the local preschool and kindergarten were instrumental in that effort.
By age six, I had been weaned off of any formal assistance, but many of the 7.1 million children who received special services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act during the 2018-2019 school year won’t be so lucky. That’s nearly 14 percent of public school students in the country.
As a general rule, these families rely on constant effort and repetition to put their children in the best possible position to succeed.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and schools were forced to rapidly shift to remote learning, special needs students like eight-year-old Theo Duran, who was just beginning to make progress on basic skills like holding a crayon and walking up the stairs, were left in the dark.
Some districts, like Clark County, Nevada — which hosted virtual workshops for parents instructing them how to navigate course delivery methods like Canvas and Infinite Campus — made a valiant effort to educate parents and accommodate their students’ needs in their remote learning infrastructure.
On the other hand, Massachusetts merely shifted their federally-mandated individualized education programs (IEPs) online without including parents in the process.
It was the bare minimum to remain compliant with federal law.
Perhaps the Clark County model, if applied ubiquitously, could have been a reasonably effective stopgap measure. Even there, it became clear all too quickly that for many families, there was no substitute for in-person learning.
But nationwide, multitudinous districts followed the path of Massachusetts. When it became evident that schools did not meaningfully contribute to COVID-19 transmission, they backed national teachers’ unions and their torrent of unreasonable, politically motivated demands.
Subsequently, special needs students went from being left in the dark to being a complete afterthought. Their cognitive development and educational prosperity became casualties of the pandemic. Angry parents tried to sue districts, but little came of it.
By winter, Massachusetts, and other states like it, began to realize the extent of their mistake, but by then it was too late. The damage had already been done. Reports of permanent learning loss, cognitive regression, and declining focus, among other things, became all too common. These regressions could permanently alter the cognitive progress, economic opportunity, and even the lifespans of those affected.
It didn’t have to be this way.
No solution would be perfect, of course, as special needs programs are often underfunded as it is. But for parents desperate for their kids to receive in-person education, a feeling of control or progress would have been a boon amidst the pandemic’s economic insecurity and emotional turmoil.
Texas, whose special needs infrastructure has a negative history, is trying to take the lead to ensure that a catastrophe of this magnitude never happens again.
SB 1716, which was recently signed into law, offers families of special needs students a $1500 grant which can be used to purchase additional education services — without negatively affecting their IEPs.
No public entity should presume that they know better than a child’s parents — especially the parents of a child with special needs. The role of the public entity is to inform and assist, not to rule.
This type of legislative action, placing the welfare of students above those of systems, is the type of reform that this country is hungry for — a necessary condition for any form of recovery.
I consider myself to be extremely fortunate that the winds of fate determined that the pandemic would strike while I was in college. I do not know where I would be without the services rendered to me when I was young.
My heart breaks for those whose education and development have ruptured. The nation failed them in their time of need, but there is no need for that shortcoming to be permanent.
We have a chance to repair some of the damage and protect future generations — if we give parents the agency they deserve.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.