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‘We have kiddos regressing’: What shuttered schools mean for students with disabilities in Michigan

On a normal day, Giovanni Warrior, a 17-year-old with autism and schizophrenia, might dress in a suit with his mother’s help, announce that he is going to work, and board the school bus.

The bus was the first step in a treasured school day routine that was a crucial source of stability in Giovanni’s life. Last week, that routine was put on hold when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced that Michigan’s school buildings will stay closed through the rest of the school year due to the coronavirus.

“If I was to tell Giovanni there would be no school for the rest of the year, he would be screaming right now,” said LaRai Warrior, his mother. “He doesn’t understand.”

Giovanni’s disabilities are unusually complex, and he depends on his Detroit high school for a wide range of services.

Advocates worry that Giovanni and the 208,000 other students with special needs who rely especially heavily on their schools will be among the hardest hit by the school closures.

Giovanni Warrior

Giovanni Warrior

Courtesy LaRai Warrior

“It’s the quiet time bomb that’s going to go off as soon as we start back,” said Laura Jones, a special education advocate and founding member of the nonprofit Michigan Special Education Advocacy and Development. “The child who comes back is going to be completely different. People in special education all know it. It’s going to be really challenging.”

On Whitmer’s orders, every school district in the state is developing a plan to help students learn from home.

However, in these early days of the outbreak, some parents of students with special needs are finding that they’re effectively on their own at home with their students.

“They’ve pretty much just gone hands off,” said Erin Purdy, a special education teacher and parent of an 11-year-old with Down’s syndrome, of her children’s school. “We have kiddos that are regressing, and there’s nothing in place. We can do better as an education field.”

Some districts are beginning to reach out to students with special needs directly, giving them the extra attention they need to learn. Some are meeting with parents through online services.

But with federal officials indicating that they will be “flexible” about special education laws during the pandemic, not all districts will be able to accommodate their students with special needs. Advocates worry that students like Giovanni will miss out on their federally guaranteed right to a fair education.

“When we’re in crisis, we can’t abandon civil rights. Period,” said Dessa Cosma, executive director of Detroit Disability Power, an advocacy group. “Yes, it’s difficult enough to accommodate all kids with online learning. And yes, it might be more complicated and require time and attention to specifically address the needs of disabled students. But we have to do it.”

For Giovanni and his family, “complicated” is an understatement.

He spends much of a typical school day with the same special education teacher he’s worked with for three years, a critical social connection for a student who is still learning to talk. They work on elementary-level concepts chosen specifically for him. The rest of the day might be spent with a social worker or an occupational therapist, focusing on basic skills, like how to hold a conversation, that most students learn at a much younger age.

Replicating those services from a distance will be nearly impossible, and there’s no replacing the routines and relationships that play a key role in children’s emotional and social development. Giovanni won’t be putting on his suit to go to work any time soon. 

Making matters worse, his family doesn’t have an internet connection at home. The Warrior family — LaRai, Giovanni, and his 13-year-old sister — is on a fixed income, with Giovanni’s mother spending much of her time as his sole caretaker.

If students backslide, advocates warn that extra services will be needed once school is back in session. Some of the families Jones represents have already agreed to meet virtually with school districts to update their federally mandated special education plans. But she said those meetings will likely need to be redone because the plans, known as IEPs or individualized education plans, are based heavily on evaluations of students, the results of which are likely to change after the student spends five months at home.

But re-evaluating students takes time, Jones said. “How you do that for the entire population, I don’t know,” she added. “There’s not enough trained people.”

In her executive order closing schools, Whitmer told districts to “consider” offering extra make-up services to students with special needs when school buildings reopen.

“There’s a recognition that the state will need to provide compensatory services,” said Michelle Fecteau, a Democratic member of Michigan’s board of education. 

But hiring additional staff to help special education students make up for lost time would cost money, and Fecteau worries that politicians won’t be willing to approve the spending, especially because state revenues are expected to be hard-hit by the coronavirus. 

In any case, any resolution to those questions is months away, and Giovanni is still at home.

When the school closures were announced, “I’m screaming at the top of my lungs, NOOO!” recalled LaRai Warrior.

As Giovanni’s primary caretaker, Warrior already puts much of her energy into her son’s well-being. She helps him get dressed, eat, and struggles to communicate with him as he learns to talk. Giovanni becomes upset when confronted with large amounts of new information, so she has learned to break down instructions into small chunks. That gives him time to process the information, but slows down their interactions. After school, she often takes him to get additional therapies or to his psychiatrist’s office. With schools closed, she’ll have to spend even more time with him, which gives her less time to rest.

Which isn’t to say she’s giving up.

“Just because he stopped at a certain grade doesn’t mean we can’t keep going,” she said. “He’s willing to learn.”

Editor’s note: April 8, 2020: An earlier version of this story misstated an aspect of federal disability law. IEP meetings may be held by phone or teleconference call.