(Image via Shutterstock.) NC Schools Reopening
(Image via Shutterstock.)

A parent in NC’s largest school system talks about the enormous challenge of virtual education for a child with special needs. 

[Editor’s Note: The following op-ed is one NC parent’s experience with preparing for remote education for a child with special needs.]

My son’s IEP binder is thick. I take it deadly seriously and I expect my son’s school to take it seriously too. 

We have a lot riding on the document, otherwise known as an individualized education program, including my child’s general health and mental welfare.

I gave a lot of grace to our school system in the early days of the pandemic. I was happy to not worry about grades and testing. It made it somewhat easier to plow through. It wasn’t by any means easy.

So now everyone is preparing for the fall. Yet, last week I had no idea what choices there were to make. 

I didn’t know anything about special education in my county’s virtual school or Plan C, Gov. Roy Cooper’s option for online-only education. The problem is while typical families got a FAQ and were having robust Twitter conversations, special education parents had mass confusion and no answers.

At that time, the only two official communications I’d received from the Special Education Dept for Wake County Schools was a transportation survey, and a robocall/email telling us that what we’d previously believed to be the plan was no longer the plan.  In one call, chaos.

‘I became increasingly concerned that they didn’t have a plan for us. I became increasingly concerned that we were an afterthought.’ 

For kids in a contained classroom like my son, families were initially told that our kids would remain in the classroom daily. Extra precautions would be taken, but since our specific population can’t do transitions, we wouldn’t have to worry about a rotation. On Tuesday evening on July 14th, I learned this was false.  If the board stuck with Plan B, even our confined special education classrooms would rotate.

I was mad yes, but I was even madder the next day, because I didn’t know what my other options would look like. 

At the open house for the county virtual academy, the section on disability simply said they would uphold our IEP and deliver services. 

That’s the equivalent of saying the school won’t do anything illegal. That isn’t information.

I became increasingly concerned that they didn’t have a plan for us. I became increasingly concerned that we were an afterthought. 

After we get general education figured out we’ll concentrate on things like special education and ESL (English as a Second Language). Relationships run deep with our students and teachers, I didn’t know how that would play out in the county Virtual Academy.

I did what I always do, I took my frustrations and organized.  

By Saturday, I was getting messages from friends and people who knew I was upset.  I started a Facebook group with lots of help. 

We got our questions, suggestions, and concerns put together and then started contacting anyone who would communicate with us.  We got through, especially to our board members, and were told to watch the school board meeting.

At the Wake County School Board meeting, kids in confined classrooms were provided a new target for going back daily in-person.  I was relieved that it would be later.  I was relieved it would be daily.   

My hope is that numbers will go down and teachers and staff will feel safer.  But I’m still worried.  There is nothing to do but wait til it is safe.  The plan will allow my child to stay with the teacher he knows.  For my family that is important.  Beyond that, I don’t have a clue what my child’s education experience will look like.  

One thing that didn’t change at the WCPSS school board meeting, the lack of clarity for special education students especially those in Virtual Academy, and those general education students who receive special education services not in confined classrooms.  

That is a lot of families with questions. How services will be delivered, who will be delivering them, or how will IEPs be managed are only a few questions families have going forward.

Look, I know Wake County is huge in scope and size. I know this is all new. 

All the more reason the Special Education Dept should be communicating with parents and their teachers. All the more reason to put special needs first and communicate out.  If kids with disabilities are more complicated, tackle it first and prioritize it.  We might get our FAQ or even Open House but it will be weeks later then typical families.  

Disability parents are being advised to call and hold IEP meetings as soon as possible.  If Wake County Schools expects to answer all our questions and work out solutions in individual IEP meetings, then they are attempting a Herculean task.  

Right now my Facebook page is full of promoted ads for private schools and education companies. These people know what they’re doing. I’m staying put in public education. I’m going to keep pounding on doors until I know what my options really look like for the fall semester. 

I’m a fighter. 

Not everyone is, nor should they have to be just to get some basic answers.