While NJ Teenagers Boycott Hybrid Education, My Son with Autism Is the Last Kid in School

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Laura McKenna is a New Jersey parent of two teenage boys, one currently studying at Rutgers University and the other a high school student with autism. She has been a special ed teacher in the South Bronx, a policy research, a college professor,, a PTA officer, and an education writer. You can find her here.

As we walked through the strangely quiet streets of Manhattan last week, we were awed by the semi-permanent structures erected by restaurants to shield customers from the cold. Outside Chelsea Market, a Chinese restaurant installed an ingenious system of tubes that piped hot air onto the diners, who ate their pork dumplings in 20-degree weather. Those folks looked comfortable, so the tubes must have worked.

The restaurant industry, despite draconian health and safety regulations, is serving customers — sometimes with jerry-rigged pipes – while our schools are losing students.

Across the George Washington Bridge in New Jersey, my son’s school, like almost all schools in New Jersey and nearly half the schools in the country, is hybrid. To accommodate new cleaning regimens and small cohorts, students attend school for 8 to 12 hours per week and then watch their teacher and fellow students in little boxes on a Zoom call for another 10 to 14 hours per week. Kids with IEPs, like my son, get a little more time inside the school.

How’s it working out? Thirty students are normally enrolled in my son’s pre-calculus math class. With hybrid instruction, enrollment has been cut in half to 15 students, but today, the number of students in the room is one — my kid. My kid is the only student sitting in math class today.

Hybrid education would seem to be an improvement over remote education — at least the kids get some real interactions with their teachers and classmates. However, my son’s classmates have given up on hybrid education. Since last fall, more and more students in privileged suburbs are opting to attend classes remotely from their bedrooms, rather than bother with their old brick and mortar school buildings.

Staying in their PJs all day makes sense to a lot of kids, because of the obvious comfort factor.  I suppose it’s rather nice to sit up in bed, grab a laptop, and log onto your first class of the day. They can transition from deep sleep to AP American Government in less than 30 seconds, skipping the whole shower and school bus thing. Many students don’t want to go to school, if their friends aren’t there. It’s hard to socialize when there’s no lunchroom, and you have to remain six feet apart from your pals.

For health and other reasons, some teachers teach from home full time. Students don’t see the point of dressing, commuting, working in a harsh workplace of plastic barriers and masks to take a Zoom class, when they can log onto their Chromebooks, while reclining on their beds?

In these sporty suburbs, the parents tell me that their kids socialize with friends on the court and the field, rather than the lunchroom, so they aren’t too worried about their kids’ mental health. In addition, hair-trigger quarantine requirements could sideline the kids from their sports for two weeks, so kids would rather avoid the risks at school, so they can be around unmasked teammates after-school. For some kids, it’s more important to play in the basketball tournament than learn anything in an English class.

Other kids are staying home, because it is extremely easy to cheat on tests at home. The kids find answers in their math book, which is open just outside the Zoom video camera, and from group chats with friends on their cell phone. These activities can’t happen in the school. So, kids who physically attend school face a testing penalty.

If my son was one of those other kids, with sports and friends, I might make the same decision as other parents and let him work remotely. It’s the rational decision. After all, who wants to hear a teenager whine?

But my son has autism, so he doesn’t have any friends and can’t play a sport. He desperately needs to be around other human beings and to get out of his bedroom. So, I send him to school faithfully every day even though his teachers are busy talking to a couple dozen boxes on his laptop and not to him. Sometimes, he is the only person physically in the classroom, because his teacher is working remotely, too. But we keep sending him, because we are, as I said, desperate.

While the other kids might appear to be content, this situation isn’t terribly healthy. Before COVID, teenagers were at high risk for mental health issues, like anxiety and depression. I can’t imagine what a year in their bedrooms with unlimited access to the Internet will do to their brains.

While kids in middle class suburbs have already learned the basics in reading and math, and COVID learning loss isn’t a huge tragedy, it is still rather sad that those kids will miss the chance to be wowed by an inspirational teacher who makes Shakespeare and Locke and Bronte come alive. After a full year of Zoom school, we know that that energy cannot be translated through a computer screen.

There is no sign that this situation will improve anytime soon. Our district has recognized that the lack of students physically in a school building is a problem, but has no tools to force students to go. Now that students have gotten the option to dial it in, they aren’t going back. And can you blame them? How many teenagers voluntarily chose to work hard?

School leaders and public officials in New Jersey are not planning on returning to normal anytime soon, even when teachers are vaccinated. In fact, they might stay in hybrid mode, until students are vaccinated a full year from now.

Until school leaders make their school buildings an inviting place to learn, until parents force their kids out of their bedroom, until kids have fewer options, this situation won’t change. My kid will remain the last student in school until schools learn to adapt like restaurants.

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