In a typical August, parents would traditionally be thinking about a return to the structured consistency of the school year. This year that transition is anything but comforting. Recently, the superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia, the largest public school system in Pennsylvania, released a revised back-to-school plan.
As a pediatrician and a teacher, we still don’t know exactly how the planned return to school will actually unfold in each district in our community. Regardless of how the delivery of instruction may change throughout this year, we do know that our community members and representatives must keep in mind the more than 1 in 7 kids in the School District who receive special education services. This figure does not even include children who live in Philadelphia yet attend unaffiliated charter or private schools. During a normal time, children with disabilities and their families face significant barriers to getting the services they need and deserve. COVID-19 has intensified this disparity, like so many others.
Legally, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act holds public schools accountable for providing eligible students with special education services, for example a student with Down syndrome, autism, or ADHD who is having academic difficulties. Each case requires personalized efforts to support the needs of the individual child. What’s common across the board is the need for the resources, time, and staffing to develop and implement these personalized plans. Money is tight right now for everyone, from individuals to cities. Where we spend our money reflects what we value. We implore constituents to contact and urge their local representatives to show that we value our children – all of them.
Our experiences as a medical provider and educator give us a profound appreciation and sympathy for just how challenging it will be to put into operation the School District’s current plan. As in so many cases, “the devil is in the details.” It is therefore all the more important that we unite to support marginalized students and their families.
From an optimistic perspective, we at least have the experiences of this past spring to inform our actions. The move to a virtual platform has been, to say the least, “tough” for many. In the pediatrician’s office, we are seeing parents desperate for help. Raising a behaviorally challenging son or daughter can be difficult enough. The additional burden of being an impromptu teacher, without any training in education and long removed from the intricacies of long division or chemistry, can break one’s spirit. The stress is felt not just by the parents but the child. His or her frustration may turn into outbursts of frank anger and push them to give up.
Yet, we also know we’re building on a far from perfect system to begin with. Even prior to the pandemic, teachers often lacked the support needed to adequately support their students. The requirements of documenting for individual education plans are involved, let alone the resources and effort needed to actually implement them. The asks may have been clear, but the means to execute were often lacking. Our government officials’ responses to the pandemic present an opportunity to ensure that we support our parents, teachers, and administrators in providing the necessary services to help children with disabilities thrive.
In this moment of significant political and cultural division, supporting some of our most vulnerable is an issue that our community can unite on – across the political aisle, across professions, and across our city.
George Dalembert is a general pediatrician in Philadelphia. Emily Wetzel-Ulrich is a teacher in Philadelphia.