Syracuse, N.Y. — Thomas Greene put his backpack on every morning this spring and waited.
He’d stand at the front door for hours. He’d bang on the glass to get out.
“Bus! Bus!” he’d cry every day for a month.
Finally, the kindergartner’s mother hid his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle backpack in the closet. He stopped going to the front door.
Thomas is one of thousands of special education students for whom school is not just math and reading. It is fundamental life skills taught by teachers, therapists and aides. It is potty training, how to hold a pencil, how to recognize emotion, how to have a conversation, how to manage the frustration of being different.
You can’t do that on Zoom.
When the schools shut down, kids like Thomas and their families were set adrift. There are 4,500 special education students in the Syracuse school district, alone. Districts across the region realized these kids needed face-to-face help; most prioritized sending special education students back for as much in-person education as possible.
But in Syracuse, special education students remain home, along with all other students, until at least Oct. 5. For Thomas’ family and many others, every day is time lost in a widening gap they fear will never be made up. They worry about what will happen if the district does not reopen to students in October.
Thomas loves school. Before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the 6-year-old’s kindergarten class at Frazer Elementary School, he’d been going to school year-round since he was 2.
Thomas has severe autism. He doesn’t have conversations. He is not potty-trained. He has near-perfect recall of the dialogue in his favorite television show, Steven Universe. He has deep brown eyes, a fast smile and climbs like a monkey. He loves his 2-year-old sister, Rebecca, so fiercely that he cries when she gets in trouble.
Things that are second-nature for other kids his age are hard-fought victories for Thomas: Saying hi, holding a pencil, playing a game. He learned these in kindergarten with the help of a small, specially trained army that includes a special education teacher, an aide constantly at his side, a speech therapist and an occupational therapist, said his mother, Brianna Greene.
But for more than six months, that army has been gone. All spring, Greene held out hope there would be in-person summer school for special education students. When there wasn’t, she pinned her hope on the fall. Then the district announced it was delayed in-person school.
“That was a huge blow,” Greene says. “And it’s disappointing because I know that some of the other schools are going to be in person and I kind of feel that that’s unfair… I feel like there’s a solution out there, but they’re really not finding it.”
If the Greene family’s house was just up the street, Thomas would be one of those kids going back to school in person. The Solvay School District has brought high-needs students, like Thomas, back to school four days a week; other students are going two days a week.
The decisions about who goes back to school and who stays home have been district by district in New York. Most urban school districts across the state have decided not to bring back students for in-person education, but smaller districts are having students come back, especially younger and special education students.
In Syracuse, the district acknowledged the need to have special education students come to class in-person. They were one of the few groups of students that were to get four days of in-person instruction in the district’s initial hybrid learning plan. That is still the plan, according to the district.
Greene sits in her backyard. Thomas and Rebecca go down their slide and bounce on a small trampoline. Then they climb on their father, Ruben. He tosses them in the air. It’s hard to hear anything over their laughter.
This late summer day, Ruben is home on vacation from his job as a long-haul truck driver. Most weeks, he’s gone. It’s just Greene and the two kids.
At first, she tried to do school with Thomas. But the worksheets the school sent home for him were too hard. When it was time for Thomas’ speech therapy session, he couldn’t understand why his teacher was talking to him through the computer. He couldn’t understand why he had to do school when he was at home.
As the days passed in quarantine, his hard-won skills fell away: no more hi, no more tiny conversations. He cannot hold his pencil. He never mentions when he goes to the bathroom in his pullup.
Thomas became frustrated and angry.
Locked in his mind with no way to communicate, no extra help to pull out the words, the happy boy is surly and explosive, his mother says. He’s started hitting her. He’s learned to punch. Until some of his teeth got loose, he had begun biting his mother, too.
And at some point in this pandemic, in their small house on Syracuse’s far West Side, he found his all-powerful weapon against his frustration.
Thomas screams. Not for a minute, or 15 minutes, or even an hour. He can scream for four or five hours, straight.
Before school shut down, he never did this. He would cry like any other kid. When he was comforted, that was that.
Greene tries not to cry as she talks about the screaming.
“You can go to a different room. You can walk away,” she says. But Thomas follows her. “I have locked myself in my room to give myself a break from it. He bangs on the door and tries to break the door down. That’s how intense it gets. “
They mostly gave up on trying to learn. How can that happen when he is so frustrated? Instead, the days revolve around keeping the peace.
Maria Morse, a lawyer who advocates for special needs families in Central New York, said students are losing services they are required by law to receive from their school districts.
“Providing certain types of services is impossible virtually,” Morse said. This is the type of therapy that Thomas was getting to help him learn to hold a pencil and scissors. In that, the therapist holds the child’s hand and makes the movements with him.
She said everyone is trying to be understanding of the difficult spot schools are in. But she said it seems like special education services have taken a back seat in some places.
“I think unfortunately in a lot of school districts the resources have gone to trying to develop a plan for general education students. And in some cases that has left them scrambling to develop a plan for special education students,” Morse said.
Jake Holtham started eighth grade in the Syracuse City School District Monday. Like Thomas Greene, the 13-year-old is severely autistic. He, too, has been in school year-round since he was small.
Last year, he seemed to blossom. His parents lived in Camillus and he attended a special program at Camillus Middle School that was run by the Onondaga-Cortland-Madison BOCES. For the first time, he went to birthday parties. He went on field trips and talked about them when he came home. He made art projects his parents put on the refrigerator and walls.
“He was making connections with people. There’s was a girl at school he had a crush on. The teacher told us about it. And we started teasing him. And he’d blush,” KarAn Holtham said. They were typical things you’d expect from a typical kid. But Jake is not typical so those moments were all huge milestones that were years in the making.
“He doesn’t have sports. He doesn’t have band. He doesn’t have any of those things,” Holtham said. “We rely so much on our schools. I don’t think people realize that.”
In addition to his autism, Holtham also has severe attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and physical problems that make it hard for him to go to the bathroom.
At school, the teachers, aides and therapists worked with him to develop routines and expectations. If he completed his work, he could do a fun activity as a reward. He could be in the bathroom for five minutes, no longer.
Greg Holtham drives for Instacart so he can be home with Jake while KarAn works as a medical secretary.
They’d try the work the school sent home. And they’d try speech therapy. But like Thomas, Jake struggled getting his therapies virtually. He’s regressed.
On a recent day, he could be heard singing from the bathroom. He’d been there for a half hour already. He is stuck in his old frustrating routine, his parents say. Jake never sees or plays with kids his own age. He can’t concentrate on the schoolwork on a tablet or computer.
Because Holtham’s family had moved just prior to the pandemic shutdown, he has been switched to the city school district. Many of his old friends in the BOCES program have gone back to school. But he is still at home.
The first day of school didn’t go very well, his mother said. They only received a video link to watch but couldn’t get it to work.
On the first day of school at Thomas’ house, Brianna Greene was careful not to tell Thomas that school was starting so he wouldn’t look for his backpack and wait for the bus.
Instead, they got dressed early and she sat the computer she has set up on a small table in her bedroom, trying to figure out how to log in to the school site.
Thomas bounced around the room, checking over his mom’s shoulder to see what there would be. There was nothing but a video introduction from his new art teacher.
Thomas watched for a few seconds.
Then he slapped the screen and left the room.
Marnie Eisenstadt writes about the Syracuse City School District, people and public affairs. Contact her anytime: email | Twitter| Facebook | 315-470-2246
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