Now We Are Sick

There’s Covid-19 in our house. We caught it because the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) wrote “may” instead of “must” into a special education guidance document. We caught it because our school district decided that “may” would equal no for them. We caught it because when forced to choose between abandoning our son’s education or exposing him to the virus by sending him to school, we chose his education. Now we are sick.

Around the country, elected leaders and unelected officials in state and local government are failing to protect us. They are doing it for different reasons – some are science deniers, some are worried about costs, some are just not thinking it through, some are worried about political blowback. But the “may” instead of the “must” is hurting our family.

There’s a lot to say about this policy and how it played out, and I want to give a little bit of detail here as best I can.

  1. My son has the guaranteed right to a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment (FAPE in LRE).
  2. My son’s disabilities mean that he requires the support of a one-on-one aide for all educational and personal activities during the school day, according to a binding legal document (his Individualized Education Plan or IEP)
  3. The school district says putting an aide on the other side of a computer screen meets FAPE. We disagree. Note that this isn’t the teachers, but is the special ed admin, but perhaps they are being ordered by the superintendent? We don’t honestly know.
  4. The school district offered him four-days-a-week in-person education though (kids without IEPs were getting offered two days only) as a way for him to get FAPE. Although we were worried about Covid, we were assured about their safety plans and terribly worried about the consequences of so much missed school since March.
  5. Through Medicaid, we have a Personal Care Attendant (PCA) we can hire to support my son in all things NOT related to education, because (according to federal HHS) that’s education’s job. So we can have a PCA in the room when he’s learning, but she can’t hand him a pencil, she can’t prompt him or support him.
  6. Which brings us back to the guidance: MDE says that school districts MAY contract with a third party (i.e. the people who already handle our PCA) to fund the PCA during school hours. But they don’t have to. And our school district hasn’t.

Last Monday we received a call that my son had been exposed to someone with covid during the previous week in school (the person had been working closely with him, was showing symptoms, and had a confirmed positive test). And now my wife and son have covid. I so far do not (negative test, but also a weird dry cough and some exhaustion). We don’t know about my daughter yet but she’s asymptomatic. It’s really terrifying and exhausting.

And none of this had to happen. MDE could have written “must.” Our school district could have said “yes.” Our governor could have mandated support. HHS could have waived PCA restrictions. The Ed Dept. could have mandated in-home distance learning support.

But instead, the pandemic is surging and we waffle between no measures (the science-denying right) and half measures (the craven/cheap left).  I’m focused on my family right now obviously, but we could talk about limiting indoor gatherings to ten people (gatherings of just a few families right now are a leading cause of the covid spread), or closing the bars after 10 (as if the virus cares about curfew), or any number of other half measures.

It’s going to only get worse unless our leaders choose to lead. Starting by using “must” instead of “may” when trying to keep people safe.

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