Students with disabilities grapple with being out of school amid Newton teacher strike

“I’m wondering if I get [to go] back to school,” Isaac said, a little gloomily Friday, leaning his head against his mother’s shoulder.

The Newton teachers strike has left nearly 12,000 students — and their parents — in a lurch. For children with disabilities, who account for almost one in five Newton students, being out of class means missing valuable time with trusted aides, teachers, and therapists, and the structured routine that school provides.

In Isaac’s case, a teacher’s aide takes his notes during class and helps him focus, and his teachers adapt assignments, so he can do them himself.

“We are so reliant on the school system and the specific teachers to care for our kids, like even more than typical children,” said Isaac’s mother, Alicia Piedalue. “My kid requires a lot of understanding and a lot of extra help.”

The statewide standardized assessments are on the horizon and Isaac needs to start doing better, Piedalue said, to prepare for the high-stakes exams in high school, which must be passed in order to graduate.

“It’s going to be hard for all of us to push him to get there,” she said. “Now I’ve lost another week.”

The protracted strike, with no end yet in sight, has put a strain on many parents. Working parents, for example, have cobbled together child care through a mix of pop-up camps at local businesses, churches, and temples or organizations like the YMCA and Boys & Girls Club. But parents of children with disabilities can’t depend on these camps, which don’t offer specialized supports.

“We really do support our teachers and our administrators, but we feel like the ongoing strike affects a lot of the students with special needs much more than others students,” said Annette Nedeljkovic, chairperson of Newton Special Education Parent Advisory Council.

Students with special needs, she added, “depend on the predictability and the supportive environment the schools provide, and I think a lot of people do feel like the rug has been pulled from under them.”

Jonathon Swersey has two children in Newton schools, including his eldest daughter, 12-year-old Belle, who is neurodivergent and prone to seizures and strokes. Swersey feels conflicted about the strike. He supports the teachers and their fight for a better contract, he said, but worries about the outsize impact of the strike on children such as Belle.

Many students with disabilities “really anchor to routines and consistency, and deviations from that are really complicated,” he said. Belle is blossoming at school, Swersey said, where her teachers have worked closely with her medical team at Boston Children’s Hospital to understand “how my daughter’s brain works.”

But the lack of structure over the past week has been hard on Belle, said Swersey, a health care innovation consultant. He and his wife are fortunate, he said, that they can watch over their children while they work from home.

Belle has trouble trusting and building relationships with others due to the many years she spent in and out of the hospital. School was supposed to be a place of stability for Belle. Now he worries this strike is “going to set her back.”

“She feels successful at school. She does well. It gives her purpose and meaning. And she really, really, really misses it,” Swersey said. “And she misses her teachers.”

The strike follows more than a year and a half of contract talks between the teachers union and the School Committee. Sticking points in Newton negotiations have centered around pay, including increases for paraprofessionals, who often work closely with students with disabilities, and several other issues, including coverage of classrooms when a teacher is absent and a written guarantee that every school will be staffed with a social worker.

Under Massachusetts law, teachers are prohibited from striking. But educators in districts such as Andover, Brookline, Haverhill, Malden, and Woburn all went on strike over the past two years and successfully landed new contracts.

Thus far, the teachers union in Newton has been fined $375,000 for striking. On Friday, a judge ruled the penalty will increase by an additional $50,000 a day starting on Sunday, if the union fails to end its work stoppage.

Every evening during the past week, Isaac has anxiously awaited for news from the school district, wondering if he’ll be in class the next day. Piedalue, a stay-at-home parent, has tried keeping Isaac and her other three children busy and entertained with trips to Legoland and the Museum of Science. She spent Friday afternoon with Isaac browsing for books at Barnes and Noble, and running around the playground at Ward Elementary School.

Piedalue and her family moved from Boston to Newton two years ago so Isaac could eventually go to a high school with inclusive classrooms, where students with disabilities learn alongside their typically developing peers. She has considered private school for her other children, but that’s not an option for Isaac, who can complete the general education curriculum, as long as he has support.

“There’s no such thing as a private inclusion school,” she said. “We’ve looked far and wide. They don’t exist.”

Plus, Isaac loves his teachers and his one-on-one aide.

“They’re nice to me,” he said.

His civics and English teacher, in particular, has been encouraging Isaac to do his homework independently, boosting his confidence by “spreading love and trust into me.”

For now, Isaac said he just wants to go back to school and “have fun learning again.”

Deanna Pan can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her @DDpan.

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