Parenting in the pandemic

A mother of a child with autism says all kids benefit from support staff in schools.
Jenny Price
Photo by Marla Bergh

From the moment my husband and I learned that our son was autistic, we leaned into the idea of building a team.

Our public school has been at the center of this effort since he started kindergarten, and it will continue to be when he walks into his middle school for the first time this fall. With help from special education teachers and specialists who have been in his corner along the way, he’s learned strategies to navigate the school day and leverage his strengths. He can build a Titanic out of Lego bricks by looking at a photo. He is funny, kind and endlessly curious. One persistent question runs into another like bumper cars.

We already knew how critical this support was, but the last year proved to us just how much. When the pandemic shut everything down, we did what our son’s teachers and aides had taught us. We made schedules on whiteboards to anchor him in his routine and replicated the reward tickets the school uses for positive reinforcement. We took breaks to dance to Pitbull songs to release extra energy and refocus. I relearned how to do fourth and fifth grade math.

Some things were much harder. As a kid who often struggles to read social cues and carry on the back-and-forth conversation many of us take for granted, engaging in online learning was a bigger challenge for him than his neurotypical classmates. During the Zoom meeting that started the school day before school reopened this spring, I sat nearby off camera. I reminded him to unmute and mute, and I prompted him to think about what he’d say when it was his turn for the morning greeting. I should have kept quiet, but knowing when to fade is still an emerging skill for me as a mom. His teachers and aides are much better at it. During the week of Thanksgiving, the classroom teacher asked, “What are you thankful for?” One classmate cheerfully shared, “I’m happy to be alive!” before going on to note the rising death toll from the pandemic. I almost spit out my coffee. The comment struck me as oddly funny and hopeful, considering what these kids may look back on as the most challenging period of their lives.

Jenny Price with her son

Photo by Marla Bergh

We are lucky. My husband and I can work flexibly. But there are a lot of children with disabilities whose families do not have this luxury. For them, this will truly be the “lost year” that many parents lamented about on social media, noting missed sports seasons or chemistry labs. A teacher I know saw some of her special education students simply disappear during virtual schooling last spring. Their parents did not have the time or resources to guide their education at home. When some parents in my older son’s middle school complained about grades not being issued last spring, the principal pointed out that some children were responsible for teaching younger siblings while their parents were at work.

Resources are what will help most when kids return to school this fall. But the state currently pays for less than 30% of special education costs. Local school districts are required by law to provide these services, even though the federal government long ago abdicated its responsibility to help cover the costs. And because resources vary widely across districts, so do the outcomes for kids with disabilities and learning differences.

When it’s time to write the state budget, there’s never enough money. That’s always the argument. But investing more money in special education helps every child in the classroom, not just ours. If the state picked up more of the cost of special education, local districts wouldn’t have to rely on as many referendums to repair old buildings. More money might be available to pay teachers and staff, have smaller class sizes or build new athletic facilities.

We all benefit from a world that is designed for everyone. Any parent pushing a stroller or a kid riding a bicycle would miss ramps and curb cuts if they weren’t there. The strategies and expertise that special education teachers bring to the classroom help all students — even if most parents aren’t aware that special education teachers are in their child’s classroom. The return to a post-COVID-19 world will find more students in need of extra support, and special education staff members are a critical part of the team. We need to invest in the whole team if we’re all going to thrive.

Jenny Price is a former Madison Magazine political columnist.Footer that says Subscribe with covers of Madison Magazine