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Molly McDonagh, a student on our BA (Hons) Sociology programme, reports on the effects of lockdown school closures on disabled young people. 

The Department of Education’s decision to close schools during the latest lockdown has introduced numerous speedbumps for students, as well as their parents and teachers (concerning exams, mental health, inequality of access to resources and much more). One group has been completely overlooked within these conversations: disabled youth.

Vulnerable children—those with EHCPs (Education, Health and Care Plans) or in the care system—are exempt from school closures under the current rules.  However, 98% of special school students have EHCPs. Since running these schools at full capacity would be a major safety concern amongst teachers, special schools are running at a reduced capacity, with a large proportion of children left to learn online.

Many families of children with EHCPs feel abandoned by the government, as if their children are effectively “not disabled enough” to deserve a place at school. Amongst these families are the McDonagh household, with nine children; five would usually attend special schools.

 “We’re a big family and some of the children have complex needs, so simple activities like going for a walk are hard,”

says Mrs McDonagh, who is at home with nine children, with the help of the children’s carer and her husband, who works full time.

The isolation has impacted the McDonagh children’s mental health in extreme ways. When going for a walk or shopping, the eight-year-old daughter with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) attempts to make friends with every stranger she sees on the street, evidently missing her school friends. Her nine-year-old son with a learning disability has begun obsessively and ritualistically washing his hands—to a concerning point—misconstruing hygiene advice from his teachers and parents.

The parents’ meetings with social care and schools have stopped abruptly, and the children no longer have access to the disability groups they would usually attend. Mrs McDonagh explains that the children are “lonely and thrown out of routine,” and have found it difficult to accept that they are not going to school. Children with ASD tend to have a need for repetitive patterns; routine comes naturally to them, and the breaking of routines can be detrimental to their mental wellbeing.

 Mrs Walker, the children’s carer, is also concerned.

“They’re a creative household, there’s so many of them, and we do our best with online learning, so it’s as best of an at-school experience as they’re going to get.”

The children get plenty of attention from their mother, their carer and their dad when he isn’t at work, but it cannot compare to the amount they need and would usually receive: two teachers to one child, in a school setting.

Mrs Walker also spoke about feeling conflicted about working in somebody else’s home during a pandemic.

“I’m not wearing a uniform or walking into a care home, so it feels quite immoral to be there. I want to be there when they need me, pandemic or not.”

According to Mrs Stuart, a Teaching Assistant for a Special Educational Needs School in Telford, it is evident that not only pupils and families of EHCP students that have been impacted, but also teachers and staff.

“There is potential for a huge impact on the children’s education, as the government have stipulated that schools follow their planning as was set for the fully functioning schools. The policies put in place to have to continue to work at the same pace, to meet the same learning outcomes and goals, (and that) puts a huge pressure on teachers, parents and the pupils.”

The online learning programmes the pupils are expected to use can be considered difficult to navigate, not only by the pupils but also their neurotypical parents and carers. This, paired with the reluctance of pupils to work from home, could be a hindrance to their learning, making students and teachers feel demotivated. There is a lack of interaction reported within online lessons, making it hard to distinguish students’ understanding of the lesson, or their motivation to learn.

 Mrs Stuart says,

“The government’s expectations that all children should continue to access their learning from home to the same degree as they would when in school…is unrealistic.”

There are numerous ways to reduce the impacts of school closures on disabled youth, such as considering people that work around them (teachers, carers, social workers, disability group leaders etc) to be essential workers, or using alternating days at schools for pupils to reduce the risk to teachers but maximise the amount of time the children can safely have in school. There could also be a reduced expectation of student learning outcomes to alleviate the pressure on pupils, parents and teachers. Many accommodations could be put in place to benefit both teachers and pupils. The government’s approach could be considered negligent. Despite this, some procedures have been put in place to benefit disabled youth, such as the few disabled children that have maintained a place in school, or disability school teachers having a first priority to being vaccinated. It seems as if the turbulent history of disability activism has been completely disregarded within the governmental decisions made throughout the pandemic.

First year student Molly McDonagh, born and raised in Telford, Shropshire, moved to Birmingham to study Sociology, focusing on advocacy around LGBTQ+ and the disabled community.