It took me only about a week to realize that distance learning was not meant for my 9th-grade son.
He has a 504 plan, a plan devised to keep him on track academically and provide accommodations for testing or homework, aiming to address a few of his special needs. He requires frequent breaks (to address his Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), time with his school social worker (to address his Autism Spectrum Disorder), and the ability to have a manipulative, such as a stress ball (to address his anxiety disorder).
Today, in the United States 1 in 54 children are on the Autism spectrum, and 3.3 million children ages 12-17 are living with ADHD — and having a comorbidity, like anxiety, is par for the course. For someone like my son, who had support in school and thrives when other adults in his life can mirror real life back to him, so much is lost due to remote learning. He needs more than what our dining room table can provide him with, or that I can provide him with, or what Google Classroom can give. He needs more than the socialization he gets from hanging out with his five-year-old sisters.
He has two moms, and my God, does he need both of us. My wife, a former middle school teacher, understands his academic needs. She also has Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), so she understands him on an even deeper level than I do. Together, we put in the work to get him what he needs — even as we all navigate our anxiety about what will come in the weeks ahead, about remote learning, about the mental health of our teenager. We also are the teachers for our five-year-old twin daughters, work full-time, and try to make it all function well. We all are trying to do our best and work with the reality in front of us.
Two weeks ago his first quarter as a 9th grader was officially behind us all, as bumpy a ride as it’s been, with the canceled school, the in-school, in-person learning. But the grades which showed up on his digital report card surprised us all — four Fs in subjects he’d once liked, like history. I wanted to scold and nag him and lecture him: “You’re able to get higher grades!” “You like history, what happened?” We all knew what happened. We all blamed remote learning for our son’s grades (and YouTube).
Like many parents of kids with special needs, at the beginning of the remote learning fiasco, I was simply in survival mode. 1,001 questions raced through my mind: How will I parent and teach my kid, how will he get what he needs socially when we can’t even go outside, how will he get to trust and know his teachers, will he learn anything this year?
Some six or so months into this new normal, I am still feeling the growing pains and so is my son. He’s a teenager, and like so many teens, he’s obsessed with YouTube, a phenomenon I am still trying to wrap my own almost 40-year-old brain around. But having access to the internet all day has quickly become a hindrance in his life, getting in the way of his education and the achievement of his goals because his brain just isn’t wired to be online all day long. None of us are wired this way, but especially not those who have trouble with executive functioning.
In my home state of Connecticut, there are 18,716 — or 1 in 28 — students who are diagnosed with autism, emotional disturbance, or intellectual disability in our school system. My son is part of that statistic, and his special needs make distance learning almost impossible. But here we are. I imagine the other parents of these kids are feeling the same way.
In the weeks ahead we are going to need to figure out how to not only bring up our son’s grades, but how to keep him socially engaged during the quarantine. Our state’s education commissioner, Miguel Cardona, was quoted in the Connecticut Mirror, as saying, “For the parents of students of special needs: I see you and I hear you. Right now our efforts are going to be focused on making sure we are providing services and support to students with special needs, to our English learners and our youngest learners in early childhood programs.”
As a parent, I am still waiting to hear what kind of services are being put into place for my son’s education. For any student entering into 9th grade, it is a hard year no matter what — but being in school to navigate it all, a student can grasp the realities of showing up, in person, day after day. With the support of guidance counselors, teachers, social workers, cafeteria staff, principals and school custodians, our kids are stronger and more capable humans because of the variety of individuals in their lives. For my special needs son, this is doubly true.
His homeroom begins every day at 7:30 a.m.; he logs on and is expected to be marked for his attendance by his teacher on Google Classroom. Most mornings, he is distracted by YouTube before even navigating his mouse to get to his homeroom class on time. With 80-minute periods and teachers who aren’t entirely sure how to work Zoom themselves, they rarely succeed in holding his attention. By the second period, he is fully engaged in some YouTuber’s story rather than his academics.
Could I be more available for him and monitor him more? Yes. Would my work suffer because of it? Yes. Even if his performance went up, mine would decrease. And monitoring him more, sitting beside him while in science class, would drastically alter the dynamic between my teen and me.
This reality that we are all navigating is not meant to be what is normal, what helps us succeed as humans — and at the end of the day, that is what I want for my son. I want him to succeed, to be an individual who understands others, who knows the importance of putting hard work in, and how to appropriately engage with people in the world. For these experiences, I cannot depend on his school to serve its traditional purpose in the ways I’ve been able to lean on in the past. It’s up to us now, in varying degrees, to help him succeed even as a special needs student. I just hope we can figure it out.