• OAK Street Initiative

Virtual school is failing today's students with special needs. It would have failed me.

Updated: Oct 15, 2020

No matter how hard I tried nor how smart my parents told me I was, reading, writing and spelling were nearly impossible for me. I transposed letters and number sequences and grew increasingly frustrated with myself and school. Despite being able to understand what teachers were saying, I could not translate their words into written text. I struggled every day with my work, and my self esteem.


The “smart” kids called me dumb. Children teased me for going to remedial classes. But I was determined and had a strong support system that taught me my learning differences were not something to hide or be embarrassed about. Instead, with innovative and creative approaches to learning, I was able to thrive. 


I learned to read a single word at a time.

Today, I am Chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine for Pennsylvania Hospital.


Dyslexia, a language based learning disorder that makes it hard to decode speech and how it relates to letters and words, impacts an estimated 5-10% of the population, but the percentage may be as high as 17%. And like any learning disability, the earlier and more rigorous an intervention occurs, the better the outcomes.


While not formally diagnosed with dyslexia until I was an adult, I was fortunate to attend a public school system that provided the classes and resources I needed to succeed. But what happens to children who don’t receive rigorous learning interventions at an early age like I did? The multi-pronged challenges we face in education -  poverty, underfunded schools, and lack of technology resources- are compounded by the decision to virtually educate children due to COVID-19. As a Philadelphia physician, I am deeply concerned about the emotional and educational growth of children in my city, particularly those with learning differences and other special needs who are currently not receiving the services they need. 


Virtual school during COVID-19 is failing many students, particularly those with special needs whose Individualized Education Programs (IEP) are not being met. Many of these students can not participate or learn the same way on a computer as they would in a face to face environment and it is detrimental to their short and long term growth. 


The priority this school year should be on students with special needs. I believe school buildings should open on a rolling basis, starting first with children most in need of services who would benefit from small, in-person learning. This type of learning can be done safely for both students and educators. In small groups, children with special needs can thrive educationally. Smaller capacity would allow students, educators and therapists to spread out in the classroom and observe COVID-19 distancing protocols and PPE can be provided to ensure safety. Many private and parochial schools are in session and are mitigating the challenges of COVID-19 successfully. Children with dyslexia or learning disabilities deserve the same level of educational services as children in private schools, regardless of zip code or the ability to pay tuition, and regardless of COVID-19. 


It took until my late 30s until I was able to completely enjoy reading. And just six months ago, at the age of 55, I actually had enough confidence in my reading to join my first book club! I learn differently, I look at the world differently. And because of my dyslexia, I have the ability to find innovative and original solutions to problems others may not see. I have come to see my learning difference as a creative advantage.


But if not for the consistency of my education, I would not be where I am today. 


COVID-19 is forcing a generation to stay home this school year. Children with special needs are getting left behind and may never catch up. As a physician, I see that we are failing our kids. As a former special education student, I know how significant that failure is. 





For more see: 

COVID-19 Trends Among School-Aged Children — United States, March 1–September 19, 2020 https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6939e2.htm


Oster, E. (2020, October). Schools Aren’t Super-Spreaders: Fears from the summer appear to have been overblown. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/10/schools-arent-superspreaders/616669/


For more on dyslexia see: http://dyslexiahelp.umich.edu/




The opinions expressed in this article do not represent those of the University of Pennsylvania Health System or the Perelman School of Medicine. 

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