Joey Doherty, 19, and his mother, Tommi Stephenson, at their Nashville home. Tommi struggled in 2021 with schooling for Joey, who has special needs, as schools cut options for remote education during the COVID pandemic.(Photo: John Partipilo)
Last school year wasn’t easy, but with the help of his mother, Joey Doherty kept up with Zoom classes taught by the special education teachers he has known for years.
This year, Joey – a high school senior who is 19 years old, blind in one eye, has Down Syndrome and a host of resulting ailments that make him vulnerable to disease — remains at home, enrolled in a “homebound” program intended for Tennessee children with short-term illnesses or injuries expected to last for 30 days or less.
He has no daily instruction, relying instead on learning packets from his special education teachers — who under state education rules are not authorized to offer Joey any additional help.
A company under contract with the state to help students with serious behavioral problems — Joey does not have behavior problems, his mother said — is available to answer academic questions by phone only after 8 p.m., Joey’s bedtime.
It is the only option available to Joey outside of in-person school, where many of his classmates don’t wear masks.
“I’m not sending Joey to school. There’s no way I’m going to risk his life,” said Tommi Stephenson, Joey’s mother. She cried at times as she sat on her back porch, chronicling the weeks spent trying to find better options while holed up in her Nashville home with Joey 24-7. Their isolation has been compounded by the fact that Stephenson’s ex-husband, a Rutherford County public school teacher, has had to limit contact with their son because of his own exposure to COVID in the classroom.
“I feel like the public schools have let us down. A private contractor that works with kids with possible aggressive behaviors — that’s who we’ve been kicked out to. The truth is that schools never wanted to deal with kids like Joey. I want to believe in public schools, but this homebound option is an affront to me. It’s insulting. It’s sad. It’s unnecessary.”
Gov. Bill Lee has said ‘no’ to remote learning, saying children belong in schools. The governor has also said ‘no’ to mandatory masking in schools, arguing that is a choice for parents to make.
Before making those decisions, the governor “did not consult the most senior official in the state of Tennessee with responsibility for ensuring the rights of disabled students,” court filings in the Shelby County case said. The senior official is Theresa Nicholls, the assistant commissioner for special populations at the state’s Department of Education.
The governor’s decisions have narrowed the choices available to many parents of kids with disabilities, who make up na considerable portion of the state’s public school enrollment.
Tens of thousands of Tennessee school children are at higher risk for serious disease if they contract COVID. One in 8 public school children in Tennessee — about 110,000 kids — are enrolled in special education classes, but not all of these children are vulnerable to serious illness. An unknown number of children are also at high risk as a result of obesity, diabetes or other underlying problems. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundations, 22% of all kids under 18 in Tennessee have special healthcare needs.
(Masking) is necessary and reasonable to accommodate the needs of children with disabilities who face heightened risk of serious illness due to COVID-19 exposure. They cannot even walk into or within a building in a manner that is equal to their non-disabled counterparts.
– U.S. District Judge Sheryl Lipman in her ruling that Shelby County can require masks in school.
At least three lawsuits have already been filed by parents of children with disabilities against the Lee administration, arguing that his executive order barring universal mask requirements in schools interferes denies their children’s rights under the the Americans with Disabilities Act to safely access schools.
U.S. District Judge Sheryl Lipman, acting in a lawsuit brought by Shelby County parents, temporary blocked Lee’s masking order, saying universal masking is “necessary and reasonable to accommodate the needs of children with disabilities who face heightened risk of serious illness due to COVID-19 exposure” and that “wearing masks is an action that other children may take for the ‘common good’ of their classmates.”
“They cannot even walk into or within a building in a manner that is equal to their non-disabled counterparts,” during the pandemic, she wrote.
Lipman’s preliminary injunction applies only to Shelby County schools.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is also investigating whether Lee’s mask-optional mandate for schools discriminates against students who are at a heightened risk for severe illness from COVID.
Across the state parents of kids with special needs have been forced to make tough choices this school year, said Kara Boo, director of Family Voices of Tennessee, which advocates for families of children with disabilities, healthcare needs and chronic illnesses.
Some parents have fought, with uneven success, to include masks requirements for individuals who come into contact with their child as a part of individualized education plans, which are created to address the needs of children with physical, emotional and learning challenges, Boo said.
Boo herself made the decision to remove her 17-year-old son, who has congenital heart issues that place him at higher risk should he contract COVID, from his private school in Wilson County, where masks are optional. He is now enrolled in Metro Nashville Public School’s virtual-only school. Boo said private school administrators declined to make virtual learning an option, saying it was too much of a burden on teachers.
“We feel like our voices have not been heard,” Boo said. “That’s the hardest part.”
Stephenson has fought hard to keep her son in public schools and wants him to graduate from Blackman High School in Rutherford County, where he began as a freshman.
Virtual school — separate from the remotion options adopted by schools last year — cannot accommodate kids with individualized education plans calling for five hours of special education instruction, as Joey’s does.
Private school isn’t an option either. Stephenson was laid off her job at a jewelry company last year. Her unemployment benefits ended in April. Most private schools couldn’t accommodate her son’s needs anyway, she says.
When the latest wave of COVID infection began to spread just as schools opened, Stephenson didn’t know what to do. She kept her son home for several weeks while communicating with his teachers, who did not mark him absent. Then, she said, school officials warned her he could be found truant.
Unwilling to put her son at risk by sending him to school without universal masking, and with no virtual option that would accommodate her son, Stephenson said her only option was homebound instruction, a state program that gives kids experiencing a medical problem or serious injury the option of temporarily learning from home.
Homebound replacement requires a doctor’s note. It took more than two weeks for Joey to get a doctor’s appointment scheduled at a time when the waiting room was relatively empty, to limit his exposure.
The program provides three hours of instruction per week, but Stephenson said the instructor who called her last week made clear she was available only to answer Joey’s questions, not to tutor or teach. The woman passed along a packet from one of Joey’s high school teachers. Those teachers cannot offer instruction or homework help in the homebound program.
Because the program is only intended to last for 30 days, Stephenson will have to renew her application every month, she said.
“I’m at a loss, I really am,” Stephenson said. “But I don’t think there’s any school that’s worth Joey risking his life.”
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