With Schools Online, Parents Of Children With Special Needs Struggle

Apr 23, 2020

Oliver Chatterjee sits surrounded by his family.
Credit Photo provided by family

Shami Chatterjee and Meghan Kennedy* miss the full night’s sleep they used to get a couple times a week when a nurse stayed over to help with their 12-year-old son, Oliver.

Oliver has a form of cerebral palsy that requires round-the-clock medical care. A nurse can no longer come in the house because he is at high risk of contracting COVID-19.

Oliver and his parents also miss the specialists who used to help the child at Dewitt Middle School in Ithaca. The group includes a one-to-one aide, along with language and physical therapists. These days, his parents are trying to do for him what a team of specialists used to do.

“My son is intellectually extremely capable, but physically he’s extremely disabled,” said his father, Shami Chatterjee.

“And so it really does take the effort of the whole team to get him to access the curriculum and show what he does understand and to show where he needs help.”

By law, all New York public schools are required to provide children with special needs the same assistance they would have gotten before New York Governor Andrew Cuomo closed schools. Officials in the Ithaca City School District claim to be doing that.

Chatterjee said he believes the school district is trying, but some kids with special needs are still being left behind.

Tina Caswell is a professor of Speech Language Pathology at Ithaca College. She’s worked with Oliver since he was a toddler and said he has made great progress in his ability to communicate and express himself.

She said the current pandemic makes this work really difficult.

“It’s a struggle,” Caswell said. “And I think we are not in a good place currently, for helping to support, particularly, our non-verbal children to be able to access a curriculum.”

Oliver needs someone with him at all times to monitor his health and to help him with the technology that allows him to communicate.

His mother, Meghan Kennedy, worried that they just cannot do everything for Oliver to continue his education while schools are out.

“For a typical kid they can do that independently,” Kennedy said. “For Oliver, I have to facilitate everything and doing that on top of the physical care-taking of Oliver is almost impossible.”

“It’s a lot,” she added.

*This story has been edited to account for grammatical mistakes.