OPINION: Give parents resources during pandemic to help kids with special needs

Cobb mother urges governor to use federal funds to provide families with micro grants

In a guest column, a Cobb County parent asks Gov. Brian Kemp to use some of the federal emergency funds at his disposal to give micro grants to families with children with special needs. Parent Elizabeth Foy lives in Smyrna.

By Elizabeth Foy

The COVID-19 school shutdowns hurt all students. But for families of students with special needs, they are particularly devastating.

Parents are rightly concerned with the challenges of moving from in-classroom instruction to an exclusively virtual environment. Now imagine how those challenges are magnified for students with Down syndrome, autism, dyslexia, processing disorders, severe physical disabilities, or a range of other difficulties.

Sitting these students in front of a computer for hours on end will not result in real learning. That is certainly the case for my 13-year-old-daughter Hannah. She has Down syndrome and a complex medical history with a range of comorbidities, including autism.

Hannah has been in the Cobb County Public School system for 10 years. We have worked hard with the public schools to ensure Hannah has what she needs educationally, including an inclusive environment that puts her in classrooms with typically developing peers.

These types of social interactions have spurred my daughter’s growth and development. She has participated in Special Olympics, a cheer team, a chorus group and a playhouse with students from Emory University. Hannah’s school community has truly embraced her.

Since March, the COVID-19 shutdowns have isolated her at home. For kids with special needs, their world was always much smaller than that of their peers — and the virus has made that world even smaller. These students are struggling to lead meaningful lives.

For Hannah, the public school system hasn’t provided much-needed in-person support, despite the fact that she has an Individualized Learning Plan (IEP) mandating one-on-one support. For Hannah to learn effectively, individualized in-person attention is mandatory.

Cobb County mom Elizabeth Foy

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That’s why it’s time to empower parents directly with the resources needed to help their child with special needs thrive during school closures. The federal CARES Act gives governors discretionary funding for local educational needs. On Aug. 18, Gov. Brian Kemp announced that most of these funds would support higher education institutions and broadband to schools, but up to $19 million was made available to provide childcare for low-income K-12 families.

Children with special needs are another vulnerable population. My plea to Kemp is to consider using the remainder of these CARES Act funds to support direct micro grants to families of children with special needs. Governors in Florida, South Carolina and Oklahoma have taken this step to help these families bridge the education gap during the pandemic.

Putting education dollars directly into the hands of parents means that our children have a greater chance of not falling behind. The funds will come nowhere close to meeting the needs of students like my daughter, but they will help to bridge the gap until schools can fully reopen again.

There is a misconception that this type of support for families with students with special needs is purely for convenience. That could not be further from the truth. Without the right equipment or tutoring services, learning simply does not happen for these students. In Hannah’s case, she requires a large, touch-screen monitor to aid with virtual learning. A small laptop is insufficient.

We’re fortunate to have resources to support Hannah’s learning. But many other families lack the basics of even a laptop or a reliable Internet connection. They need help.

The state of Georgia has spent tens of thousands of dollars to help my daughter achieve a certain level of function. If this lockdown continues much longer, all of that will have been for nothing. When schools finally do reopen their doors, it will be five times as expensive to get Hannah back to where she is today.

The spirit behind the stimulus package passed by Congress earlier this year was to prevent catastrophic losses in the business sector. We must do the same to prevent catastrophic learning loses for our students with special needs.

We don’t have time to waste — kids are falling through the cracks. Gov. Kemp understands the pressures that children with special needs are facing. He should use the power and resources at his disposal to make a lasting investment in their lives.