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Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Frustration with the schools (not the teachers!)

 Over the years, I've been a big cheerleader for the Boston Public Schools.  I am a fan of public schools in general, and I've always tried to let people know it's very possible to get a very good education in Boston without feeling like you have to send your child to private school or you have to move out of the city.  For those of you not in Boston or near it, the Boston schools don't have the greatest reputation.  I've felt for many years that poor reputation is not justified.  My three children, all very different from each other, have been for the most part well served in Boston.  

My feelings haven't changed when it comes to the teachers, or the therapists, or the paraprofessionals, or the principals.  I can truly say in all my years, which add up to 23 years now, of having my children educated in Boston, I've only encountered two or three teachers, out of literally hundreds, that I would not happily have teach my child again.  Indeed, I've had far more than my fair share of absolutely amazing teachers, of therapists that care deeply, of paraprofessionals that I would trust with my children's lives without a second thought, of principals that took a personal interest in my kids.  

But the school system in general?  The upper management, the central office, the bureaucracy?  Well, I'm not too happy with them.

Nobody can be blamed for COVID-19 existing.  It's a virus.  You can't be angry at a virus.  But I am angry at how the whole crisis has been handled in Boston, quite angry really.

I've talked through Facebook and by phone to many, many other parents in other parts of the US and world, and overall, it seems like most school districts are finding a way to educate kids like Janey.  At the very least, most districts seem to have used the summer to make plans, to find a way to  bring the kids that just don't learn well at home into the schools as safely as possible.  Some parents have chosen to keep their kids home anyway, and that is certainly understandable.

Technically, we were given a choice with Janey---remote learning or a hybrid method, 2 days a week at school.  But after talking to her teacher and hearing what those two days a week would be  They would be in one room, with masks on, never leaving the room, teachers not allowed to touch the kids at all, much of the teaching taking place by Zoom meeting even in the room, as teachers would not be circulating. That isn't a classroom model that would work in any way for Janey, or for most kids with autism.  So we chose home education.  Janey's amazing teacher understood that Zoom meetings don't work for her, and she is going to provide us with weekly materials (which she had to do a funding drive to get money for---no thanks to Boston there) to teach Janey with.  

Janey's room at school has no opening windows, none at all.  She rides a bus for an hour each way to school and back.  She will wear a mask for short times, but I'm quite sure she wouldn't leave one on all day.  She lives for walking around the school, for field trips and swimming and dance.  It would be both unsafe and deeply unsatisfying for Janey to go to school as it has been set up.

I attended a big Zoom meeting for Boston parents of special needs kids.  I won't go into it in detail, but it was awful.  A politician was allowed to grandstand for a long time, an ABA specialist took up a long period of time during a meeting meant for PARENTS to ask questions (she had good ideas, but at least 50 parents had questions that there was no time to answer during the too short meeting), and most disturbing to me, a school official outright lied.  He was asked (several times) if teachers were going to be given adequate PPE (personal protective equipment, like masks, shields, etc.)   He said emphatically "Yes!  Absolutely!"  Well, as of last week, I have been told that such equipment is not only not being given to teachers, it hasn't even been ordered.

Even if we had chosen to send Janey to school, school isn't starting in person until October 1st, or at all, even remotely, for another two weeks.  I don't see any other district anyway that isn't even having any school this September, basically.  The schools had all summer to prepare.  This didn't all come out of no-where.  But from what I can see, infighting and attempting to please every politically powerful faction took up the time that should have been spent on one big goal---finding a way to safely educate the kids of Boston.

I know that the powers that be would argue they just can't find a way to safely educate Janey and her peers.  But I wonder---why, elsewhere around the country and around the world, are so many other kids like her back in classrooms already, safely, with teachers that have the equipment they need to be safe, with classrooms that are ventilated, with few enough kids in a room for it to be safe, without a mask requirement for children whose special needs just make it impossible for them to understand why they need to keep a mask on?  

Boston school buildings are underutilized.  Janey's high school has a population far, far smaller than the school was built to hold.  All the time, attempts are made to close some of Boston's 125 school buildings.  Surely, somewhere in the city, there are enough classrooms for kids like Janey, the highest need students, to safely attend school, and surely, there are enough teachers that, if given the proper tools, would feel safe teaching the classes.  I don't want any teacher that doesn't feel safe or supported to teach.  Many teachers have small children, or medical conditions, or the like.  But if only teachers who felt safe teaching were to teach the high needs kids, as is happening what seems like virtually everywhere else, and if Boston could be flexible and open classrooms in buildings that have good air circulation and opening windows, even if that required Janey and others to temporarily go to a different school---well, you would really think a city like Boston could do that.  And you think they would be shamed by seeing that everyplace else pretty much in the world is finding a way to do what they can't seem to do.

We're fine, ourselves personally.  Janey is 16.  Although it's not what we want, truthfully she could stop going to school now and it wouldn't be a tragedy.  I was prepared to have her drop out if the schools had been rigid about Zoom meetings for her schooling.  But there are so many young kids with autism in Boston who desperately need schools.  And although we are managing, Janey is regressing in a lot of ways.  Her toilet training has been, well, set far, far back.  She is talking less much of the time, and lately, especially after seeing her teachers outside in a socially distanced meeting---which was great---she seems to be upset she's not in school.  She can't express that directly, but it's fall.  She knows fall, and she knows that is when you go to school. 

One of the things that was said at that infuriating Zoom meeting for parents, when a parent poured out her heart about how hard this all has been, and how she didn't feel equipped to teach her young child with autism, was that there are many social service agencies in Boston designed to help the special needs community, and "we are going to work with them to get services and help for kids who need it" (not the exact words, but along those lines)  I think of all of this, that makes me almost the angriest.  You are GOING to?  Why hasn't that been happening right along?  Why are there untold numbers of agencies that I know have a mission and funding to help kids like Janey, and that are I am sure are well-meaning, but that don't work with the schools, or each other, that don't ask parents what we really need, that hold endless workshops and support groups and make up nice fliers but don't provide ANY respite, ANY after school programs, ANY direct help, except maybe to a small number of people that know exactly the right way to ask for it and have the means and personality and connections to access the help?  Why can't help be OFFERED to those who truly need it?

I'm angry.  I'm angry that the overpaid, overstaffed, underworked bureaucracy of the Boston Public Schools is failing the children of Boston, and the teachers of Boston, and the everyday citizens of Boston.  I don't get angry easily, Boston.  It took me 23 years to get this angry.  But I'm angry.