Chicago Special Needs Families Struggling Under Quarantine | WBEZ
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Families Of Chicago Students With Special Needs Struggling Under Quarantine

Chicago parents whose kids are under quarantine after a classroom assistant at their school was diagnosed with COVID-19 say the isolation is bringing added stress for their kids, most of whom have intellectual disabilities. Some also have physical impairments and chronic illnesses.

Nancy Bender says her daughter and family loves Vaughn Occupational High School. For her daughter, “being home has been the hardest challenge,” Bender said. “She melted down. She feels like she is in jail basically.”

School district officials asked people who have been to Vaughn since Feb. 25 to stay home through March 18 unless they need to seek medical care or are told otherwise. This includes all students, teachers, service providers and other visitors, including up to 20 case managers from other Chicago public schools. The district confirmed this reached 170 people.

On Monday, public health officials added to the list of COVID-19 patients linked to Vaughn. There are now 11 cases in Illinois, including two who are relatives of the Vaughn classroom assistant. Neither of them, however, visited Vaughn School recently. Officials say all three are in good condition.

The school district says it has been in contact with Vaughn families and staff via email to inform them of updates, including information about what to do if they have symptoms. Chicago Public Schools says it is only testing people from Vaughn who are showing symptoms. Officials said the test for COVID-19 is not reliable for people before they exhibit symptoms. So far, no one with symptoms from Vaughn has tested positive, according to the district.

As the quarantine carries on, people in the Vaughn community say they are most worried about the students and their families.

“I was not so much concerned about myself as much as I was concerned about the health and safety for those children and those families.” said Susan Hickey, a part-time social worker who’s been quarantined. “Are they OK? Are they getting the nutrition support that they need? Are they getting the education they need?”

Vaughn currently enrolls more than 200 students, most of whom have accommodations related to their intellectual disabilities. Some students also have physical disabilities or chronic illnesses, including autism, epilepsy and diabetes. The school has a high population of low-income students — 75% qualify for free or reduced lunch.

One mother says her son, who is autistic, is struggling with the home confinement and the growing worries about the spreading coronavirus.

“It's difficult because my son watches the news. He is worried,” said Nancy Sierra. “He isolates himself now in the room. … He doesn’t know how to communicate to tell me if he is sick, so I have to keep watching him.”

Aside from the stress this is causing Vaughn students, some parents are taking off work to care for their children. CPS isn’t telling families members to quarantine along with their children, but many are staying home.

“For a lot of parents this is an incredible hardship, to not be working," Bender said. "They might not be getting paid.” 

Lupe Tafolla is a single mother of two. Her daughter is autistic, and she works at McDonald's. 

“It’s hard for my daughter, because I am having a hard time finding someone to take care of her — and it’s hard for me to not be working while making sure that she is OK,” Tafolla said in Spanish.

City and school officials said families and staff who need food assistance or don’t have a health care provider should call reach out to CPS at 773-553-5437. CPS is also asking all families in the school district to make sure their schools have their updated contact information.

“It’s critically important that our students, families and staff at Vaughn know that we will support them through this time,” Schools CEO Janice Jackson said in a letter to CPS families and staff Monday afternoon. “If one of your teachers or students has a loved one who is under self-quarantine, please understand what they’re going through and respond with all of the kindness and support that I know our district is capable of showing.”

Parents at Vaughn are coordinating efforts to assist families who need help. Through a GoFundme page, they’ve collected more than $10,000 as of Monday evening. They are also coordinating a food drive.

“It’s a struggle raising a special needs child because you always have all kinds of doctors appointments and the therapies are super important and a lot of them are out of pocket,” Bender said.

The school district said it expected to finish a thorough cleaning of the school on Monday, and it is cleaning the buses that serve Vaughn students. The school will be closed until at least March 18.

Adriana Cardona-Maguigad covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @AdrianaCardMag.

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