FAIRFAX, Va. — There was no in-person teaching on the first day of school in Fairfax County, but a Fairfax mom still brought her second grader to Providence Elementary on Tuesday.
Eileen Chollet dressed her daughter for class and marched her 7-year-old daughter, Caroline, to her school. But there were no classes being held inside, even for children with disabilities that make it impossible to learn through a screen.
Chollet said Fairfax County schools are failing Caroline and tens of thousands of other children like her in the county with special needs.
"If we were having this conversation about a wheelchair ramp, they wouldn't just say, 'Well, it's hard to build wheelchair ramps, we're not going to do that,'" Chollet said. "Federal law requires them to provide it."
The worried mom said distance learning is no learning at all for Caroline.
Caroline loves to sing and dance, but she cannot focus on a screen by herself, and when her parents sit next to her to help, she just wants to focus on them. She was born with an extremely rare genetic condition that has left her with speech, mental, coordination and sensory issues.
Prince William, Manassas, Fauquier and Stafford have all accommodated some special education students, allowing them into school buildings, while other kids continue to learn online.
"Just seeing the students there and engaging with the staff, you just know that's where they need to be," George Hummer, director of special education for Stafford County schools, said.
Fairfax said it's prioritizing bringing small groups of special education students into buildings soon.
Chollet said administrators came to her one-woman protest and told her they just can't bring kids back yet.
There are an estimated 6.7 million children with special needs in the U.S.
"We can't just not educate a group of children," Judith Sandalow, of the Children's Law Center in D.C., said. "Not educating children with disabilities is like saying we're just not going to educate girls."
Fairfax County said it wants kids to come back -- as soon as it's safe.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has offered school districts some flexibility, but has also threatened accountability.
"The requirement to comply with federal civil rights law is NOT suspended as a result of COVID," she said.
The Students With Disabilities Act says every child in America is entitled to a free, appropriate education.