November 12th was our first day of school in-person since March of last year. On my drive to school, I was excited and grateful—thinking about my students who (unlike most teachers in the country) I was lucky to be returning to.
Before our school had closed its doors last spring, one of my best students would stand outside and happily wave me in as I drove to my parking spot each morning. Since the start of the pandemic, this student has been in and out of multiple foster homes and recently was hospitalized following a major incident. They would not be there to greet me on our first day back.
The sad realization of this missing student reminded me of just how much our society has failed our most vulnerable children during this pandemic and what schools being closed has meant for them. For this student, school was the one consistent place in their life where they found the love and support that they needed—which had been stripped from them for the past eight months.
The virtual learning experience has been a disaster for my high school social studies classroom in Baltimore City Public Schools where I have taught students with special needs for the past three years. While I commend the valiant efforts my school district and fellow teachers have made in pursuing a successful virtual learning environment, it has been made clear that learning on Zoom is sadly insufficient in meeting the needs of all students, whether it is in affluent suburbs or urban cities. The horrifying outcomes of virtual learning have been widespread, yet perhaps its greatest effect has been on our students with special needs.
Students have expressed to me great frustration with the endless burdens of virtual learning by mentioning obstacles such as unstable wifi, keeping track of many Zoom links, not having a quiet place to do their work and lacking the adult support they’re used to. All of these rightful grievances demonstrate how their Individualized Education Plan (IEP), which outlines services a child with disabilities must receive, has been unlawfully neglected in the virtual learning environment.
The failure to meet students’ special needs has not been unique to my classroom. The American Institutes for Research surveyed more than 2,500 school districts across the country on remote learning during the pandemic. They found that 73% of the districts reported, “it was more or substantially more difficult to provide appropriate instructional accommodations” and that 58% of the districts reported, “it was more or substantially more challenging to comply with IDEA requirements to provide instructional accommodations and specially designed instruction."
Luckily, I am in a school district that understands the urgency of these concerns and has led the way in providing in-person learning opportunities for students with special needs, in addition to early childhood and English language learners, as profiled in a “New York Times” piece in December. My school district’s CEO, Dr. Sonja Santelises, has been a tireless advocate in finding ways to meet the needs of students like mine during this pandemic. She put it best in a school board meeting speech, “We already know that education systems not centered in meeting the needs of all students have created inequities that persist to this day. I did not take this position of CEO to continue that path. We must disrupt. We have to meet our essential obligations to educate and meet the needs of all of our students, including the ones we know we are not reaching virtually.”
This past week—to the delight of many students, families, and staff—Baltimore City Public Schools prudently announced that they would be expanding on their school reopening plans by allowing students in grades K-5, 9 and 12 to have the option to return to school in-person. Maryland’s Governor Larry Hogan also urgently called for all schools to return to some form of in-person instruction by March , in step with President Biden’s priority of reopening schools.
These announcements have been met with fierce opposition from local progressives in Baltimore and the Baltimore Teachers Union, who all misguidedly claim that schools are not safe enough to be open. Contrary to these concerns, the overwhelming science and data worldwide suggest that schools are safe and should be open at all costs. My district has already begun vaccinating teachers, offered on-site testing, placed air purifiers in every classroom and has implemented every CDC recommendation. We have had 0 cases of COVID transmissions in schools teaching thousands of students since this summer.
The return of in-person instruction has seen attendance improved, missing students returned, seniors in danger of dropping out back on track, and students’ academic needs that have been neglected by virtual learning are slowly starting to be met again.
As I watch a senior excitedly talk about graduation photos, I am reminded that this same student just a month ago had been refusing to participate in virtual learning and was in danger of failing his classes. A phone call with his mother at the time revealed to me that online learning was “overwhelming” her child, who is diagnosed with autism, and that he “lacks all motivation to do school online.”
For this student and for many others, in-person instruction was just what they needed.