Ebbe Bassey gets up every morning at 6 a.m. to get in a few hours of work before her 2-year-old daughter, Anoushka, wakes up. Though Bassey has a full-time job as an import specialist for Customs and Border Protection, she spends most of the day juggling five therapies and special education on FaceTime and Zoom for Anoushka, who has down syndrome. Her husband, a New York City public school teacher who spent the spring conducting classes online in their large one-bedroom apartment, has since returned to the classroom. All the while, Bassey handles Anoushka’s virtual education on her own.
For the families of children with special needs in New York City, the pandemic has brought incommensurable challenges to remote learning. With the feeling that schools didn’t provide enough accommodations before COVID-19 hit, working parents like Bassey are now trying to cope with having even fewer resources for their children, a situation they feel is increasingly unfair and untenable.
According to federal law, public schools are legally required to offer families with children who have special needs a Free Appropriate Public Education, known as FAPE, in the least restrictive environment. Unfortunately, many families find that despite the legal obligation, New York City public schools do not meet bare minimum guidelines for appropriate special education.
Gary Mayerson, a civil rights attorney who represents individuals with autism and related developmental disorders, said that there is only one set of public schools in the city that provide proper one-on-one education for students with special needs—the NYC Autism Charter Schools in East Harlem and the Bronx. Considering one in five public school students in the city have special needs, according to research from New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, there are not enough public education resources for these families, said Mayerson.
“They must have full-time board certified behavior analysts on staff. Not just somebody who comes in a few days a month,” said Mayerson. If public schools were able to apply adequate resources, there would be less of a need for private schools for special needs children to pop up—which can cost up to $150,000 a year, he said.
On the New York City Department of Education’s webpage there are little to no resources offered for parents with special needs kids. Instead, parents like Bassey, must now fill the shoes of educators, therapists and disability professionals. The DOE did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
The ABLEities Association, a nonprofit that offers supplemental education for children with developmental disabilities, specifically those who are both deaf and autistic, has been working to provide families with viable options for virtual learning during the pandemic to prevent backslide.
“We made all of our services free in April for all of our families,” said Elizabeth Petitti, the organization’s chief operating officer. “We were founded as a non-profit and it is a part of our mission to make our services as accessible as possible.”
Prior to the pandemic, ABLEities offered weekend social skills groups, in-home behavioral assessments and speech and language therapy.
“Our families started reaching out because their children were having difficulties focusing through Zoom,” said Petitti.
Prior to the pandemic, Anoushka attended Keith Haring School in East Harlem, where she was enrolled in an early intervention program for children ages 0-3 who struggle with developmental issues. After class, the school transported her to daycare. Bassey said her daughter was set to return to the program on Sept. 21, but two days before, Bassey received an email from school administrators saying that they would not be returning to in-person instruction, with no amended start date. Bassey had no choice but to help Anoushka with therapy at home, because alternative options weren’t affordable, she said.
“It’s disappointing,” said Bassey, about the DOE’s decision to keep her daughter’s program online, adding that she thinks the DOE prioritizes general education students. “Even before Covid there was a general societal perspective that kids like mine are second rate citizens,” she said.
Beth Silver has a 9-year-old son with autism and ADHD, who now attends Manhattan Children’s Center private school on the Upper West Side. Silver said she moved her son out of public school at the ASD Nest Program at P.S. 19 three years ago, when the DOE said they could not educate him safely.
“I was his hands during Covid. I was his assistant, while I was working a job,” said Silver, who is the managing director of a marketing and management consulting business.
Silver said she’s grateful that her son was able to return to school on Sept. 21, after months of remote learning. “When you have autism, you’re innately born to be socially distanced. I spent my son’s whole life teaching him not to be socially distant. Now I’m like, OK,” she said.
Mayerson said in-person learning is necessary for many students with autism. “I am not suggesting people should have risked their lives to teach—but the remote education we defaulted to is ineffective for many kids,” he said. “I am not sure what New York should’ve done, but I also think if the DOE had autism resources invested previously, that when the crisis struck, the impact would’ve been felt less.”
Bassey put it more bluntly. “We all pay the same taxes. I’m doing the same stuff as parents of average learners,” she said. “It just shows that the education system doesn’t want to make accommodations for people like us, for exceptional learners. That’s what I call kids like ours.”