Educational equity is more important than ever

Opinion: Columns

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Erika Eckart

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Dear Dr. Carol Kelley and members of the District 97 Board of Education: 

I am the mother of two District 97 students, one of whom has an IEP. In the special board meeting on July 23, Dr. Kelley repeatedly insisted we parents were not "teaching" our students during remote learning but merely "supervising" them. I am giving her the benefit of the doubt that she meant to defend D97 teachers' hard work. However, it was still hard to hear. 

That's because my son needs a one-on-one instructional aide to access the curriculum. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic last spring, I served as his one-on-one aide, modifying his work, giving mini-lessons, reading alternate pages aloud, creating word banks, handling meltdowns, implementing sensory breaks, sometimes logging him onto multiple Zoom meetings a day, and — because his communication ability, particularly through video, is limited — sitting with him through all of those Zoom meetings to help him engage. 

I am also a high school teacher and have a daughter, who while not as in need as my son, requires 1-2 hours of direct instruction and executive-functioning guidance each school day in order to access the curriculum. I was teaching both my 120 high school students and my children from 5 a.m. to sometimes 7 or 8 p.m. each evening in the spring. 

I was not supervising. I was teaching. 

My children had incredible classroom teachers who were doing all they could, but the nature of my children's learning needs are such that they need work modified on the fly, they need prompts, they need visual supports, they need in-person instruction. I am giving it. And I will continue to do so, and should, as our community's health right now outweighs my children's learning needs. 

However, at the very least, our superintendent could have the courage, empathy, and understanding to acknowledge this is happening in many homes, not just those of the 900 or so students with IEPs. Students who need the most support and resources when we are in school still need it and parents, many working full time and some with multiple children with special needs, are doing that work right now. 

Please see us and acknowledge the hard work we are doing. Please actually call a thing a thing. While I agree with the decision to go fully remote for the first trimester in the interest of safety, I beg you to not only acknowledge our struggle, but to take concrete steps to make remote learning more effective for our students. 

I have outlined a few here and was part of the committee that made a series of recommendations to Dr. Kelley and the board on how to best implement remote learning for children with IEPs. Related service providers must administer therapies through a video conferencing platform with an understanding that some families may refuse. Many students did not receive the therapies in their IEPs (speech, physical and occupational therapy, and social work) in the spring, but instead got a weekly mass email with suggested activities (for their parents to implement.) Some did receive therapies. It was completely at the whim of the provider your student had. 

Students with a on-on-one teaching aide as an accommodation in their IEP should have homebound services from their aide to facilitate their instruction. I understand there are legal hurdles to this, but having been a past homebound teacher myself, I also know they are not unprecedented and that we are living in an unprecedented time. 

We must overcome these hurdles and do the best by our students. We need a district-wide modified math curriculum at each grade level, a version with visual supports, links to materials, reduced problems. During spring remote learning, I was offended when I learned modified materials were being sent to every student in gifted and talented (GTD) math, when many special education students were not getting much-needed modified materials. That is patently offensive to our equity mission. 

Please give these and the suggestions outlined in the Special Education Parent and Faculty Committee Guidance full consideration. Remote learning planning in the spring seemed based on the needs of students without special needs. I implore you to consider our students' needs more fully in the next round of planning. 

However, as Dr. Kelley could not answer a board member's question about how a remote option looks for students with IEPs, I am anxious our students' needs may be glossed over again. 

As we mark the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the inequities that necessitated its passage are as present as ever during this pandemic in unequal access to education.

 is an Oak Park resident and a District 97 parent.

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Reader Comments

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Nina Diehl from Oak Park  

Posted: August 4th, 2020 9:59 PM

Thank you for writing this so clearly Erika. I have felt so alone in this struggle to meet my child's IEP on my own during the spring. Knowing that there will be another several months of the same struggle coming is very daunting. I join you with urging administration to come up with a clear plan for supporting ALL student needs this fall

Caitlin Croake from Oak Park  

Posted: July 30th, 2020 11:18 PM

Thank you, Erika, for raising these important equity issues for students with IEPs. I see you (and other parents of kids with IEPs) and acknowledge your hard work. I completely agree that we as parents are teaching, not supervising, during remote learning. D97 must address the issues you raise in order to make remote learning equitable for all students, including those with special needs.

Amy Stewart from Oak Park, IL  

Posted: July 30th, 2020 3:00 PM

I appreciate Erika taking the time to thoughtfully articulate the treacherous and seemingly impossible situation so many of us find ourselves in with regard to our special needs children and their educational needs during this pandemic. Like so many other voices here, I also believe in taking every means necessary to keep our community and our teachers and school staff safe at this time. However, I also think it's critically important for D97 and D200 administrators to understand that special needs parents are having to step up and fill critical gaps for our children while trying to balance every other aspect of our lives and responsibilities, far above what many other parents' have to grapple with. What we had to take upon ourselves last spring at a critical time is not something that can be sustained indefinitely, for our children or for ourselves. We now have the time and ability to adapt e-learning in critical ways for our children's needs, while also formulating safe ways to have their legally agreed-upon services and supports accommodated as best possible. That must become a key focus going forward.

Elizabeth Carey from Oak Park  

Posted: July 30th, 2020 11:31 AM

Thank you, Ericka! Spot on. I also think that if children can be hosted safely in group childcare (which has proven to be the case) then there should be a way to bring individual or small groups of students with intensive needs into the schools for in-person instruction. Remote learning is not effective at all for some students.

Katie Shean Zapata from Oak Park  

Posted: July 30th, 2020 10:36 AM

Erika thank you for articulating so well the situation that so many of us find ourselves in. My rising 2nd grade son is on the autism spectrum and requires a 1:1 aide in the classroom. We have three young children and I was unable to give him 100% of my attention so this spring was a complete disaster he regressed significantly. I implore D97 and the teachers union to agree to home bound services for these most vulnerable children.

Ann Titus  

Posted: July 30th, 2020 9:47 AM

And students, like my son, who have 504 plans have been completely left out of the conversation. We're eager to hear what the district is able to do to provide equal access to education for our our family. Like the writer, we were on our own in the spring, relying on the very generous help of the teaching staff and school social worker, but our son's academic progress required almost constant one-on-one teaching and support (and tech help and creativity) on our part. Please don't forget the 504 students.

Chris Costello  

Posted: July 30th, 2020 8:00 AM

I want to echo the comments of concern and frustration already stated. As the father of twins who will be entering Kindergarten in the fall and who have IEPs, I have grave concerns about D97s "Remote Learning 2.0". I am also dismayed at the apparent lack of planning and organization. Even neurotypical 5 year olds will have difficulty with the several hours a day of "synchronous learning" ie Zoom. Based on my experience in the spring, for my kids it will be impossible. This wasn't a fault of their teachers, it is a result of the utter incompatibility of my children and remote learning as D97 has implemented it. The IDEA and ADA grant kids like mine legal rights to reasonable accommodations, like instructional aides. They also grant us mechanisms such as Due Process hearings to enforce them. We will use every means at our disposal to ensure that the District meets these obligations. I suggest other parents consider the same.

Juliet Grundhofer Yera from Oak Park  

Posted: July 29th, 2020 9:54 PM

I agree completely. Call it like it is. Parents and caregivers ARE teachers. Parents are answering questions, linking to 5 different platforms to log in to zoom meetings, access learning apps or print worksheets and upload completed work. Teachers are setting agendas and very loosely checking in, but without access to the students in person there is just not the honest opportunity for them to teach. Also can we just address that this will drastically add to the already gaping equity gap? Some parents and caregivers don't have the capacity - either the personal time, experience or expertise - or the finances to supplement for their lack thereof. Holding students and parents accountable to progress at the same pace and with the same standards as professional educators is absurd and will lend itself to the inevitable failure for many of our children.

Jen Marie from Oak Park  

Posted: July 29th, 2020 9:47 PM

Thank you thank you thank you. We are considering which kids to homeschool, keep in this experiment, and which to say "screw it" with. It is so unfair to say parents aren't teaching in this, if our kids cannot access the teaching/program that's ALL we are doing.

Aaron Travis  

Posted: July 29th, 2020 7:33 PM

Excellent perspective from my totally awesome neighbor!

Nicole Matos from Park Ridge  

Posted: July 29th, 2020 6:51 PM

All of this is beautifully put, and eminently doable. See Des Plaines school district, who have announced they are working on plans to send paraprofessionals and Park District care providers into student homes and/or arrange off site care for students with legally assigned paras. One on ones are NOT the only IEP accommodations that need accommodating, even in these new circumstances. What this writer suggests is not unreasonable or impossible, and the district should work one on one with parents to approximate the accommodations these vulnerable students are legally entitled to and deserve.

Christine Ebert Nelson  

Posted: July 29th, 2020 6:11 PM

Well stated, Erika. I understand the safety concerns and support them. My child is entering D200 and therefore, this is not directly about OPRFHS, it is about him as well. He has a 1:1 aide that we didn't hear from, except to inquire as to his health. He can access online curriculum, but with significant family input, redirection, modification, and other supports. This needs to be addressed by both school districts. The struggle is real and it is massive.

Daniel Roush from Oak Park  

Posted: July 29th, 2020 5:46 PM

Seconding these important sentiments. Remote learning presents a special challenge for parents of kids with IEPs. D97 should provide resources and support, including homebound instruction when applicable, to minimize the negative impact of remote learning for these students.

Sinead Aylward from Oak Park  

Posted: July 29th, 2020 5:30 PM

Thank you Erika! It was really disappointing to hear Dr Kelley's comments regarding parents "supervising, not teaching". My husband has dedicated himself to our daughter's education since March and its offensive to dismiss the extreme effort needed to give her access to some level of education as merely "supervision". Devices arrived home that had never been in our home before. We had a list of applications with no knowledge of present levels of achievement. My husband juggled google meets, zoom, work sheets, apps that ran on iPad, apps that ran on Chromebook, eight different logins, sets of instructions on how to do compressions, sets of manipulatives, with a non-compliant, non-verbal, autistic child who could not sit and attend for more than a couple of minutes. He put his heart and soul into learning how to support her, learning how to create answer choices, learning how to facilitate communication, knowing when to engage and when to cut his losses. He learned to navigate between special education schedules and Canvas classes. He learned how to prioritize when music, speech and drama, and special education hang outs were all scheduled at the same time. This was not supervising. This was planning, execution, teaching, becoming the 1:1 aide and managing behaviors. We 100% support remote learning in the fall but stop pretending its not turning our lives upside down.

Judi Van Erden from Glen Ellyn  

Posted: July 29th, 2020 4:33 PM

Thank you, Erica, for passionately articulating the issues parents and students faced as well as the fears for the upcoming school year. You ticked all the boxes and more. We need your voice.

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