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How A Parent Of Special Needs Children Is Navigating School Reopening In Illinois

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Rebekah Strate is a parent of children with special needs. Strate's youngest children from left to right: McKenzie, JaRyiah and Miracle. The family lives in Central Illinois near Jacksonville.

Schools across Illinois are finalizing their reopening plans for the fall term amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Some parents of students with disabilities are concerned about how these plans will take their needs into account. Rebekah Strate has three children at home — all with special needs. Her family lives south of Jacksonville in a rural part of Central Illinois. 

Illinois Newsroom education reporter Lee Gaines spoke with Strate earlier this month about her concerns heading into the new school year. 

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Masks

Our biggest concern is the mask wearing. Two of my children are unable to wear masks. You know, the first day of summer school it was just long as you’re trying to wear a mask, that’s fine. Well, now we have to have a doctor’s note. None of the parents are able to get doctor’s notes. So what’s gonna happen for the fall term? What’s the rules? We can’t get anybody to basically tell us for sure: are they going to allow children with disabilities to attend without wearing a mask long as they have a note? Well, where are we going to get that note? Because doctors are refusing to give us notes because of legal action that they could have against them. If our children are required to wear masks, then our only option is remote learning.

Remote Learning and the risks from COVID-19

Due to our children’s significant needs, they are not able to attend to a tablet or Chromebook or any of those things. It requires the parent to do the teaching and I am not a teacher. I am not a paraprofessional — a paraprofessional is someone that works in the classroom with the child more hands-on. And so those people aren’t available to us if we’re doing remote learning at home.

So I know that our family is safe because we have been home this whole time. But once they attend school, I’m going to be introducing them to people that aren’t necessarily following the rules in their home life. So that is a big fear of mine, because if my children were to contract COVID-19, I would have to say that it probably would mean death for one of them for sure. But the other two, it’d be very difficult to overcome. It is very difficult to think about that because all this time, you know, the three months I’ve kept them protected, I’ve kept them safe. And then for them to have to go to school, but then you know, the other side is I know me as a mom with three special needs children, I can’t do the distance learning.

If you talk to parents with special needs children, most of them will say that they want their kids back to school. So I feel that Well, I do know through seeing social media comments that people are thinking that we’re pushing our children into school because we want a babysitter. And that is not the case at all. Our children thrive on routine. They have problems when it’s like free time, you know, in our homes are not set up to be a set schedule. These children need that routine they need to be with their friends, and they learn better in those environments. They aren’t able to attend to a tablet or a computer screen or things like that. They need that one-on-one interaction. 

The light at the end of the tunnel

And then our family. We aren’t looking for a vaccine.  We’re too leery of a vaccine, especially the first round of vaccines that they may come out with because of our children’s needs. They can’t tell us how they feel if there’s something wrong, something hurts. Because two of our children are nonverbal, so they don’t have the language or the skills. So we aren’t looking for a vaccine to give our children to start out. So in a perfect world, this would all just go away but I know that’s not going to happen. 

If they are saying that they’re going to make the vaccine mandated, we’re going to opt out of the first round of vaccines. Maybe later on, once they have different versions of it, we would most likely do the vaccine. But the light at the end of the tunnel is… I would hope that this would mutate itself down to something that’s not as severe as what it is, you know, where is just like the common cold or the common flu and which we’re able to navigate that easily. So that is the light in a tunnel for our family. But, you know, just to continue the social distancing, the hand washing — I would hope that that would keep us well and keep our children well, and keep any of our children from getting COVID-19.

Follow Lee Gaines on Twitter: @LeeVGaines

COVID-19 is a rapidly evolving story, and we are working hard to bring you the most up-to-date information. We recommend checking the Coronavirus Information Center for the most recent numbers and guidance.

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Lee V. Gaines

Lee V. Gaines

Lee Gaines covers Education for the Illinois Newsroom. She started at Illinois Public Media in 2017 and her stories have been featured nationally on NPR. Prior to her work at IPM, Lee wrote for newspapers and magazines in Chicago and nationally. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Reader, Chicago Magazine, and the Marshall Project. She also recently completed a fellowship with the Education Writers Association. ➤ lvgaines@illinois.edu@LeeVGaines

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