We’re all anxious. The start of the school year is rapidly approaching, and principals are still awaiting approval of a county education plan.
As the PTA president of my children’s elementary school, I’ve had several opportunities to speak with our principal this summer about the upcoming school year. And at this week’s meeting, she seemed just as unsure as I about what the school year would look like. But the bigger surprise at this week’s meeting came when a fellow PTA member asked us: “Where are all the special ed parents? Why are they not raising their voices?”
Hours later, I could not stop thinking about what she said. As a mom of a child with special needs, it struck a chord.
Parents of children with special needs are some of the strongest and most active within the school community. As a child’s No. 1 advocate, many of these parents have spent years fighting to get the exact IEPs needed to create success in an inclusive school setting. We’ve argued with summer camps to ask for special accommodations; we’ve sat in on countless therapy sessions to learn best practices for running a household with a special needs child; and we’ve used all our energy to integrate the child into a seemingly normal family and peer group.
Yet as the pandemic wore on—and March became June and June became all of the 2020 school year—our voices seemed to quiet.
Yes, we’ve done our due diligence. We’ve filled out surveys and given feedback to schools and the county about the proposed education plans. But why aren’t we pleading even louder? Why are we not demanding in-person instruction or extra one-on-one tutoring, or even more para-educators to assist our children throughout the school day?
I’ve seen what a unified mass of Montgomery County parents can do. When County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles announced on a Friday that parochial schools could not open in person until October 1, there was a quick and powerful uproar. Parents took to social media, spoke out on television news stations, spoke with lawyers and gathered health data. And by Sunday, Governor Larry Hogan was putting his foot down on the sweeping mandate.
When a local mom was diagnosed with cancer, she asked the experts for advice on how to tell her kids.
And I checked some Facebook pages. The last time that the Montgomery County Public Schools Special Education department posted on their page was in March, and it was for a parent survey. I also contacted the special ed arm of the county PTA and discovered that they had lobbied for online learning and were still waiting for the dust to settle.
So where are the get-it-done special ed parents now?
I jumped on social media to ask other moms what they were thinking. And it seems that many have run out of ideas. Being that all virtual learning is a new obstacle, we know our children need services, but we don’t know what they should look like. Plus, for many, nothing virtual seems like an option: They believe support needs to be in person at the home or school.
Other moms I spoke with were concentrating their efforts on finding private schools that could offer their child in-person services and, for many, financial support. Or at the very least, the population is hoping for an in person tutor for the fall, one who is trained to work with special needs.
And for some, we are just out of fight. It’s been months of frustration, fear, anxiety, and emails.
Still, I remain hopeful that educators, parents and innovators can put their heads together to try and solve this problem. While maybe this will all just be a one-off year for education, it’s a long time in the life of a child with a disability, and can set their progress back for many years.
Jacqueline Renfrow is a freelance writer who recently returned to the metro area–with a husband and three children in tote–after more than a decade in Southern California. Happy to be back in the land of seasons and free museums, she enjoys exploring the area’s rich history and culture, for what feels like the first time, through the eyes of her kids.