San Antonio, Texas

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With national leadership urging schools to reopen this fall despite rising cases of COVID-19, classroom teachers are facing bewildering choices. Already undervalued, teachers are weighing the dangers of in-person instruction against the effectiveness of online learning, with little certainty about either. Students are isolated, parents are exhausted, school districts are scrambling to make responsible decisions, yet teachers themselves are being asked to carry most of this burden, risking their lives and their families’ lives to do their jobs. Even a superhero would be daunted. As we approach the start of the 2020 academic year, we asked U.S. K-12 teachers to tell us how they’re feeling and how they’re planning for the year ahead.

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Change is the enemy. I know this from experience: as a special education teacher, a school librarian, and someone on the autism spectrum.

For most of us, a good routine is a comfort. It provides a sense of control in a world where things are, so often, so very out of our control. For me and my neurodiverse students, routine is so much more than that. When you’re trying to consciously remember each individual step needed to move through your day, a lack of routine is like trying to build a sandcastle in a hurricane.

Before quarantine, my library was a haven from the storm. Students receiving special education services only make up 9% of our population, but they were in the library every day. I offered storytimes for our Life Skills class. A calm space to work on tests and assignments. A quiet corner to recompose and restabilize after a meltdown or panic attack. I helped however I could, and sometimes I just listened. Students knew I loved hearing about their interests — Mini Brands, Minecraft, Beyblades, and more.

Now I’m wondering how I can provide this same sense of stability and safety from a distance.

Visual schedules are a common feature of special education spaces. They map out each day or class period. They give students necessary advance warning of changes to our routine. The format isn’t the problem; I can create a virtual schedule with ease. But right now, we can’t tell autistic students, or autistic educators like myself, what’s happening in advance, because we don’t know.

Everything is changing so quickly, as we grapple with the best way to meet the diverse needs of our students and staff. I worry that we are leaving our most vulnerable students at risk.

Our Life Skills students struggle with the entire premise of virtual learning. One parent said her son couldn’t comprehend why he had to do schoolwork at home. She could not adequately explain why the barrier between school and home had been broken. An autistic friend shared a story from England, where at least five neurodiverse students have committed suicide since quarantine began. I cried as I read the article, and worried about my students.

Reopening our special education classrooms simultaneously feels so necessary and so dangerous. How do you socially distance from students who love hugs, who may not fully understand why there will be no hugs until further notice? How do you convince students with sensory sensitivities to wear a face covering, when we never used to do this kind of thing before? How do you help, in all the ways that special education staff help our students, when you can’t get too close for too long?

I will do everything I can to replicate the experiences students had in our library. Virtual read-alouds and library lessons. Social stories and visual schedules. Social media spaces where they can tell me about their latest interests.

But it doesn’t feel like enough, and for some students it won’t be.

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Adriana White is an autistic librarian, former special education teacher, and freelance writer. She lives in Texas with her husband and two dogs. You can find her work on libraries and autism online here.