Glen and Emily Stephens experienced the tragedy of a lifetime in 2012 when their 6-year-old son, Gabriel, died of complications from the flu. Gabriel had suffered from the physiological and neurological disorder Aicardi-Goutières Syndrome for years.
But when one door closed, another soon opened: Glen and Emily applied to be foster parents with the eventual goal of adoption. That’s when they met John, a 2-year-old boy removed from the home of his birth mother after being rushed to the emergency room with a hemorrhaged retina and active hydrocephalus.
John was later diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury, epilepsy, and ADHD combined type with impulsivity. But now with the Stephens family, John found himself in a safe, loving, and nurturing home.
Even with his challenges, John got the help he needed in kindergarten and first grade in a charter school and later enrolled in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. In fact, for the 2019-20 school year in CMS, he made significant strides overcoming his special-needs challenges.
“During the first semester of that year, John earned nine Golden Paw Recognition Awards at Endhaven Elementary School,” Glen said proudly.
That positive progress came to a halt in March 2020, when Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order closing all North Carolina public schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instruction, even for students with special needs like John, went exclusively online.
“Almost from the moment of the first Zoom call — when John saw his beloved teacher on the screen and he realized he couldn’t touch her or interact personally — he just didn’t want to do it,” Glen said. “His reactions would range from withdrawal to violent meltdowns. We communicated to CMS multiple times about this. The best answer we got was, ‘We’re doing the best we can.’”
Once an involved student excited about school, John was now detached. “He was happy when the school year came to an end — happy he wouldn’t have to get on the screen again,” Glen said.
John’s struggles continued as school started again in fall 2020, also remote-only. By November, a glimmer of hope emerged when Glen and Emily were finally able to get their son approved for two days a week of in-person learning, and by December they made the jump to four days a week. But that again came to a crashing halt when the CMS Board of Education re-closed all schools in late December.
“My emotions were a mixture of frustration and remorse,” Glen said. “You’re remorseful because you’re watching your beloved child regress and revert back to some of the early days of his ADHD. You’re frustrated because you can read a chart as well as everyone else. You realize they’re locking out the wrong people — the young kids — rather than taking care of the other end of the age spectrum.”
The Stephens’ story is just one of many from across the state showing the tangible effects of shuttered classrooms, especially on the social and academic development of students with special needs.
There are 7 million students with special needs across the U.S., accounting for 14% of the national public school student enrollment, according to the Pew Research Center. Researchers have yet to fully account for the academic, social, and developmental declines due to COVID-related school closures for this population.
Parents of students with special needs have begged Cooper and lawmakers in the General Assembly to allow a return to in-person instruction. Their pleas were finally heard when the governor and members of the legislature agreed on a school reopening plan March 11.
Crucially for families of with students enrolled in special education, the new law mandates that all public-school districts must be open for full-time, in-classroom instruction for any student with identified special needs through an Individualized Learning Plan or a 504 plan. For regular students, the law only specifies that same benchmark for elementary school students and leaves the decision in the hands of local school boards for middle- and high-school students.
New hope for John
For Glen, that return to five days a week of instruction for his son is a huge relief. For the first time in a year, John set foot back in the classroom for five-days-a-week of instruction on March 22.
“John is elated at the prospect of seeing friends in person who he hasn’t seen in a year,” Glen said. “He is loving the idea of spending more time with his beloved educators.”
Even though families like the Stephens are thrilled, the return to in-person instruction doesn’t erase an entire year of learning loss and social stratification for special-education students.
Some lawmakers also understand this reality. During debate on the N.C. House floor on the school reopening bill, Rep. John Torbett, R-Gastion, emphasized the bill might be too little, too late to help some students, with summer school and remediation work needed.
“For many kids, coming back at the end of this year will not be enough. We just commit to helping them get caught up.”