One morning in April, I woke up to my son standing by my bed. He was carrying his backpack. His eyes were sad, and his little mouth was trembling.
“School,” he said. “Time to go.”
This was heartbreaking because school had already been out for two weeks as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
When the schools first closed down, my son took it in stride. He thought the school-free days were merely another spring vacation. Then the weeks wore on, and there was no school. There were no friends, no teachers, no library, no movies, no bookstores, no restaurants and no playground.
My son began to realize that something was wrong. He was stuck all day at home with only an iPad and an increasingly anxious mother to keep him company. The happy socializing of his classroom and his patient teachers were gone, and he didn’t really know why.
My son is severely autistic. He is 9 years old but communicates at a 3-year-old level. He cannot express complicated emotions verbally, so he has to resort to other means, such as pointing, silently giving me objects that he wants me to fix or sometimes simply screaming.
It is very difficult to explain to him that school is going to be out for a long time because of a disease. He does not know why he cannot see the teachers he loves and be around the students with whom he adores socializing. Taking away school is to my son a random, cruel twist of fate that feels like it dropped out of nowhere.
My son couldn’t tolerate it when he first saw the kind face of his teacher, Mrs. Thomas, looking out at him from the computer screen during virtual classes. It was all wrong! His teacher belonged at school! He belonged at school! School stuff didn’t belong at home!
As his teacher continued to talk to him from the screen, he pointed to his teacher’s face, looked at me and said, “Go to Mrs. Thomas! Mrs. Thomas, please! Go school Mrs. Thomas, please.” The longing in his eyes broke my heart. He was desperately hoping that with that “please,” I could magically restore school and friends and teachers the same way I could give him an extra scoop of ice cream if he asked nicely.
Not only does my son like to go to school, he also relies on it. As with most autistic children, he is vulnerable to regression with even a short time off from his classes and therapists.
All children get a bit behind during long school breaks, but autistic children are at a greater risk of going backward in terms of not only their academic skills but also basic socializing, emotional development and overall day-to-day functioning.
Already parents in my Facebook support groups are reporting that their autistic children are becoming more emotionally volatile, less verbal, more self-stimulating and less responsive to directions. Mothers online are lamenting how their children are wetting their beds, weeping uncontrollably or simply no longer speaking. As the parents of autistic children, we can only watch helplessly as our sons and daughters regress.
Feda Almaliti is the vice president of the National Council on Severe Autism. Her son, Mohammed, is 15 years old and has severe autism. On May 22, Almaliti gave an emotional interview on NPR. She described what the lack of school was like for her son.
“Muhammed is an energetic, loving boy who doesn’t understand what’s going on right now. He doesn’t understand why he can’t go to school. And school is one of his favorite places to go. He doesn’t understand why he can’t go take a walk in the mall when that was one of his favorite things to do. He doesn’t know why he can’t go to the park, why he can’t go down to the grocery store,” Almaliti said. “So he’s incredibly confused, in this time when we’re all confused, but he really doesn’t understand it.”
I heard Almaliti’s voice desperately trying not to crack into tears, and my own eyes welled up because I know exactly where she is emotionally. It is hard enough to take care of neurotypical children, who are sad and anxious and frustrated during these closures. There is an extra layer of sadness when it comes to caring for autistic children during the pandemic, who simply do not understand what is going on. They only know that suddenly a whole lot of good things have gone out of their lives.
It has not escaped my notice that these school closures are taking place during an election year. Trump, an increasingly vulnerable incumbent in this race, is now demanding that schools open in the fall, going so far as to say he will “cut off” funding for schools that refuse to reopen.
Getting kids back to school, of course, means parents return to work, an issue that is crucial to a candidate reliant on a rejuvenated economy for reelection. It also should be noted that women, especially mothers, are a coveted voter demographic in the upcoming presidential election. Naturally, our grief during this national crisis has become a political bargaining chip.
But as much as I want to put my son on the school bus in the mornings with his backpack, I know that any return to school will be temporary without stringent measures in place to keep COVID-19 spikes at bay.
Unless the complicated apparatus of contact tracing teams, spaced-out school days and classroom rearrangement is implemented, we will pay for our one month of “return to normalcy” with six more months of closures. And the Trump administration does not appear to have the patience, infrastructure or political will to put together the complex administrative machinery needed to safely reopen our schools. Also, needless to say, threatening to cut off funding to public schools does not do a great deal to win the hearts and minds of mothers who desperately need these schools to help their children’s development.
As the days crawl by, I see my son wake up, eat breakfast and listlessly do his summer schoolwork while poking at his iPad. I watch the international news enviously. Across the world I see competent governance taking place as Canada, Europe, New Zealand and South Korea slowly, carefully reopen with their contact tracing teams in place and their COVID-19 infection curves wonderfully flat.
As our own infection rate climbs, and I see our government flail as people die in overcrowded ICUs, I see how necessary it is that we vote out Trump and everyone in his administration who have let us down so badly. Only by voting in a competent administration run by people willing to listen to health care experts can we finally send our children back to school.