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One Austin family's struggle: The plight of students with disabilities in the virtual-school debate
(Jared Tseng)

For Austin special-needs student Grant Sherwood, center, online education is not a viable option for school, his father says. (Photo taken in October 2017)

When the pandemic shut down Austin student Grant Sherwood's school along with the rest of the district in March, continuing his education online was simply not possible.


For Grant, a 20-year-old with cerebral palsy and severe cognitive disabilities, education is almost entirely social and emotional skill-building, practicing communication and finding joy in being with people like himself.

So when his teacher at Rosedale School attempted Zoom video sessions with him, as educators across the district were instructed to do, Grant was so dismissive that it was almost comical, said his father, Dr. Stephen Sherwood, a pediatric dentist in Austin.

"He would just start saying 'goodbye!'" his father said with a chuckle. "His learning is very, very delayed. He has the ability to learn, but learning online is not even an option for him."

In-person or not at all

Earlier this week, Dr. Mark Escott, interim health authority for Austin and Travis County, told county commissioners that he strongly agreed with a recent national study urging schools to prioritize younger children and special education programs as they come up with ways to reopen schools to in-person classes.

They were welcome words for the Sherwoods, who are outliers in an increasingly tense national debate, as parents and politicians weigh the pros and cons of sending kids to school in person during a pandemic or keeping them home to learn virtually until COVID-19 cases flatten.

For Grant, who will need round-the-clock physical and medical care for the rest of his life, there really is no debate, and there is certainly no "pro" to online learning.

This fall, Grant will be entering his third year at Rosedale, an Austin ISD campus that specializes in teaching and caring for children with severe disabilities up through age 21.

Without the doors open, there is little role that Rosedale—which Sherwood described as a warm and nurturing place—can play in Grant's life.

"He enjoyed riding the bus, he was at school all day long," he said. "His teachers, his classmates—he just really thrives on having his regular social interaction with the people in his life."

Social distancing is difficult

Sherwood, whose wife Krista stays home to take care of Grant and their other three kids, ages 13, 16 and 18, while he works, also recognizes how difficult it would be for students like Grant to follow health guidelines at school.

In Grant's case, he coughs a lot, and he won't keep a mask on, which means the family can't really take him anywhere that requires it, Sherwood said.

"They don't have the ability to really control how they spread their germs," he said. "It's just a hard situation because we want our teachers to be safe, too, and don't want to put them at additional risk."

He believes the school will advocate for Grant and the other students, and that administrators will work to bring them back as soon as possible.

Sherwood said they'll take anything they can get, because while the tight-knit family has enjoyed some aspects of so much togetherness, the isolation has taken its toll on everyone.

"His cognitive disability is such that he can't tell us, 'Man, I really am bummed out because I can't see my teachers and my friends,'" Sherwood said. "But we've noticed that he's not really been himself."

With no plans announced and no real idea when Grant will be able to go back, there's not much to do but play the waiting game that's been dragging on through an exhausting summer.

"We'll just keep doing what we've been doing," Sherwood said. "One day at a time."

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