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KBIA’s Health & Wealth Desk covers the economy and health of rural and underserved communities in Missouri and beyond. The team produces a weekly radio segment, as well as in-depth features and regular blog posts. The reporting desk is funded by a grant from the University of Missouri, and the Missouri Foundation for Health.Contact the Health & Wealth desk.

Special Education PTA Works to Support Families as 'Scary and Unknown' School Reopening Approaches

The VanMorlan Family from left to right – Mom Amie, daughter Sagan, dad Mr. VanMorlan, and son Damien. They are joined by their two dogs.
Provided by Amie VanMorlan

Amie VanMorlan is a mother of two, a pediatric endocrinologist and the incoming President of the Columbia SEPTA or Special Education PTA.

She sat down with me to talk about some of the concerns parents and educators have about the return to school this fall for kids with disabilities – including her own son, Damien.

Rebecca Smith: So, Amie – tell me just a little bit about SEPTA. What exactly is it? And what does it strive to do?

Amie VanMorlan: Yeah, we're a special education PTA, and our goal is we just want to bring people together who support and celebrate children in special education.

We want to help support the children, their families and their teachers, because we all need to work together to make sure that children can have an equal education. We want to help the parents navigate the school system, and most importantly, let them know they're not alone.

Rebecca Smith: Great. So, obviously we are still experiencing a worldwide pandemic, and there are a lot of concerns about students returning to school. I can only imagine that there are even more concerns when it comes to your children – students who have a disability and require special education. What are some of the concerns you have heard parents and/or teachers?

Amie VanMorlan: I've heard from families – if they have a concern that their child's not going to be able to wear a mask, they might have a sensory disorder. And they're also concerned that children in special education are going to have trouble with social distancing.

There's also a concern about whether or not he’ll [her son, Damien] contract the virus, you know? Are we going to increase his risk? And I think as parents we know, if we send them to school, there is going to be an increased risk.

And then I think it's really important to have some empathy, and make sure that we see what the teachers concerns might be, too. I think, you know, as a community, we need to have understanding, grace, empathy, and maybe even forgiveness for one another.

Because we don't know what other people are going through. Teachers – I don't think they have a choice of whether or not they can come to school? I don't know that we can say what it's going to look like because things are changing so quickly. You might think you have a plan one day, and then in a couple days, something's changed.

So, I think it's just very important for us to be there and be there for each othe, so when we know what's going to happen and what the next academic year is going to look like, as parents, we're going to be able to adapt and problem solve those things for our children and for the teachers. And I think it's very important to validate their concerns also in help and support them.

Rebecca Smith: Well, finally Amie – I was wondering as the parent of a child with a disability yourself, as well as the incoming President of SEPTA – do you have any advice for parents right now? Parents who may be concerned?

Amie VanMorlan: Parents and teachers have to be advocates for our children also, because they are a smaller number, you know, in the public school systems, and I think everybody's just doing the best they can.

But sometimes the children in special education sometimes seems like maybe they're an afterthought, or not as many problem-solving sessions were had to help figure out how we're going to make sure that they get those services.

But I think once we know what the next academic year is going to look like, then we can really focus in, you know, and figure out how teachers and parents and children are going to work together to make sure they get their services.

But I think one of the most important things is that parents advocate for their children and make sure they are getting the things that they need.

It might look different than it did in the past, and we're probably going to have some bumps in the road, but I think that we're all passionate people, and we love our children, and we love education, and we are going to figure it out.

But I do think in the beginning, it's going to be scary and unknown at first, but I, you know, my hope is that we're going to figure it out and we're going to make sure that nobody is overlooked and that everybody is included.

Rebecca Smith is a reporter and producer for the KBIA Health & Wealth desk. She was born and raised in Rolla, Missouri, and graduated with degrees in Journalism and Chemistry from Truman State University in May 2014. Rebecca comes to KBIA from St. Louis Public Radio, where she worked as the news intern and covered religion, neighborhood growth and the continued unrest in Ferguson, MO.
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