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Creating Plan B

Johnson City Press • May 1, 2020 at 10:00 AM

If the novel coronavirus pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we just were not ready for such an extended disruption in normalcy.

Never would we have imagined so many people would need unemployment assistance so quickly, that so many businesses would need loans to stay afloat or that schools would finish the last quarter of the academic year with online classes.

Perhaps we will come out of this crisis better armed to cope the next time something like COVID-19 faces us to rethink standard operating procedures. All sectors — government, health care, business, food service, retail and education — have had to implement “Plan B” on the fly.

Families of school-age children, too, have had to create their own home schools with online support from teachers. That extended challenge has been especially taxing on families with children who have physical and learning disabilities.

In many cases, parents and even siblings already are primary caregivers of students with special needs. Now they also are having to be special education teachers, a field that requires a broad set of skills and training.

There is no doubt that Tennessee was not equipped to cope with such a situation.

In early April, we told you about East Tennessee State University special education faculty members who stepped up to help. They developed online chat sessions for teachers and parents who suddenly must educate students with severe disabilities — significant autism, cognitive, physical or sensory disabilities or multiple disabilities — at home.

After eight weeks of closed school buildings, the state Department of Education announced this week that it would offer $1 million for Tennessee school districts to support the educational needs of students with disabilities through technology.

As Staff Writer Brandon Paykamian reported in Thursday’s edition, local school districts already were gearing up applications. Districts are eligible for funds ranging from $2,500 to $20,000, depending on need. The awards will be announced May 15.

Given that the academic year has just a few weeks left, it's unlikely if not impossible that the technology will be on hand to aid families and schools this term.

This should be a lesson learned for Tennessee. Yes, we were entering new territory. No one had a crystal ball about the length of this lockdown.

We know now, though, that we must have systems in place to protect our institutions when such crises occur, especially for those that serve vulnerable populations — special needs children being just one example.

A detailed, comprehensive Plan B must arise from this experience; otherwise, we will have learned nothing.

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