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Omicron, special education, and marginalized communities

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Schools are reeling from the impact of the Omicron variant of COVID-19. But what does it mean for kids with learning and thinking differences? How does it impact special education and marginalized communities? 

Hosts Julian Saavedra and Marissa Wallace discuss how they’re managing the new COVID wave as both parents and teachers. They get an update on how schools around the country are responding, with some going virtual, others staying in-person, and — in a few cases — even closing because of a lack of staff.

Marissa also shares about how her virtual charter school is approaching the Omicron wave and special education. And Julian shares a poignant story about a student who ran away from home and for whom in-person school is a safe place.

Episode transcript

Julian: Welcome to "The Opportunity Gap," a podcast for families of kids of color who learn and think differently. We explore issues of privilege, race, and identity. And our goal is to help you advocate for your child. I'm Julian Saavedra.

Marissa: And I'm Marissa Wallace. Julian and I worked together for years as teachers in a public charter school in Philadelphia, where we saw opportunity gaps firsthand.

Julian: And we're both parents of kids of color. So this is personal to us.

Welcome back everybody to "The Opportunity Gap." And we're excited to be here because we want to bring up some things that are happening right now. The number one thing that's on the top of a lot of our minds, as I'm sure it is for you all too, is Omicron. You may know this or, like me, I still need to learn more of the science.

What is Omicron? So Omicron is one of the many variants from COVID-19, and a lot of health organizations are really worried about this variant because it's more contagious than some of the others. It is going wild in schools, spreading faster than anything else. It's been something that all of us, as parents, as educators, as people living in this country are dealing with on an extreme level. And Marissa, what's going on? How's things? Happy New Year, but in general, how are these times hitting you all in your family?

Marissa: It's, I mean, it's been a whirlwind, right? Like, I feel like if you would've said, "Hey, like, what do you think life is going to be like in January of 2022, after coming back from break?" I don't think I would have anticipated this. And especially now that I get to also be a parent, not just an educator but having Lincoln in school, it's, like, kind of, you know, there's two different experiences going on. I felt very optimistic at the beginning of this school year. And right now I'm just, I'm kind of feeling exhausted and defeated. And I feel like that might be how a lot of families and students are feeling, like, yeah, I was very thankful for a nice week-and-a-half break and enjoying the holidays with family and kind of taking an opportunity to just spend some quality time. However, I felt like my anxiety started to skyrocket, and, like, the Sunday scaries were, like, insane. I don't think I slept actually Sunday into Monday at all. Just trying to figure out what school was going to be like, and I mean, I know I have a unique situation since I'm teaching virtually. But even still, like it does this, the pandemic continues to impact us because our numbers and our enrollment continues to rise. And so we're experiencing, like, a different type of issue. But then also sending my son back to in-person, um, I'm not gonna lie. I don't even care. Like whatever, I'm, I'm ignoring that the pandemic exists. And then other days I can't stop thinking about it.

Julian: I'm sure every mom out there is thinking the same thing. Like you turn on the news and you see that cases are rising, and depending on where you are and you know what your own safety precautions are. Some think that it's OK to send their kids back to school. Some are worried that they won't have that option. And I mean, let's keep it real. If you celebrate Christmas, Christmas in itself is intense. I have two little kids. You have a younger kid and, you know, moms and dads out there that are doing the whole holiday thing. I mean, I'm into it, but I'm tired after executing that. It's a lot, right? So you have that, then you have an entire week off, which is a fortunate blessing for us, but it's also a week off with kids in the house.

And then on top of that, now we're going back and forth between whether or not the kids are going back to school or whether they're staying in the house, figuring out work, figuring out childcare, if that's something you need. It's really, really difficult — for all of us.

Marissa: And I think for us, like, we had a really relaxing break. However, Lincoln was sick most of the break. And of course it's like, this is not the time to be sick, because you don't know what it is. And that in itself adds this whole other layer, because someone asked me, they're like, "If this wasn't him having this cough and not feeling well during a different time, you know, prior to the pandemic, like, would you have handled your break the way you did?" Which essentially looked like us quarantining the first four days after Christmas, because we were, like, convinced he had COVID, you know. And even though he's, like, running around the house and like, "Hey, like, why don't we do something fun?" And I'm like, "Oh, we're not. Like, we're going to wait until we get your results." They're like, "Would you have done that?" And I mean, thankfully he was negative, but we really did quarantine because I was like, well, I don't want to be that person that goes out. Because my thought was like, if I do take him out and he coughs in public, we all know what that's like.

Julian: I know. A cough, a runny nose, uh, you know, any of those symptoms, it's already a little bit of a shock to the system. And those used to just be, you know, normal December, January thing.

Marissa: Yes. And keep it moving. And then I will say the sad part, too, is, like, he did end up having an ear infection and because they were only, his doctor was only focused on COVID. It was like, as soon as we got the negative results, it was like, OK, cool, like, you're fine. And I understand that the health professionals are overwhelmed. But it was like, I couldn't then get him in to be seen to get, like, antibiotics. But instead I had to, like, tell my kid, like, I'm sorry, but, like, the best I can do is a telehealth appointment in, like, two days when, like, you're not even going to be experiencing these symptoms anymore.

Julian: Let's think about even the lack of tests. I mean, I'm sure everybody's talked about that, but I mean, the fact that it was so hard to get the test, I mean, and you know, the rapid test versus PCR tests was a thing. And you know, my wife had me searching all over the city of Philadelphia, in the suburbs, my mother-in-law was searching, my mom was searching. The saddest part is my babies are so used to taking this test, and it becomes a celebration when it comes back negative. Like we used, they, they, like, start getting hyped up. Yeah, I'm negative, Dad! Woo-hoo!

Marissa: Lincoln told me it was the best day of his life. When I told him on Thursday morning, I was like,"Bud, you don't have COVID!" He's like, "This is the best day of my life!" I'm like, oh my God. And like, we laugh, but, like, what? I know, we're laughing, but it's, like, that, that is some serious depth to think that, like, our children are so, like, one, immune to, like, this is the process, right? Like, this is their life. Like, they're like, oh, like, I get a cough, I get tested for COVID, and then I get super excited and it's the best day of my life when I find out that I can go back into the world and see my friends again because I got a negative test. As we kind of dive in and continue to talk about this, I think for our listeners, it's important to have them hear that, like, every family, every situation, every child, you know, you have to kind of factor in all the things going on and make choices that are best for your family. I do think our school district is leaning toward going virtual only because of similar scenarios as what's happening in Philly. Like our, our ability to keep staffing in the building is a problem. And then because of the cases, like, I know every day this week, Lincoln's come home with his laptop, which that's new, that wasn't happening until this week.

Julian: We have our own specific viewpoint because of the region that we're in. But I know that across the country, you know, things are happening in different ways. And so our producer, Andrew, he's always doing some research for us just to help us get some data behind all the talk because, you know, what we deal with and see here in this state may not reflect what's happening everywhere else. Andrew, what do you got for us?

Andrew: You all are in Pennsylvania, so, when we talked about this earlier this week, we sort of talked about, you know, asking around the country what's happening. And obviously we can read news articles, but they aren't always what's happening with people on the ground. So I reached out to over a half dozen teachers, a half dozen parents, and we have a big network at Understood. And the thing that I think I took away the most from the conversations and emails that I had with people was that things are all over the place. I mean, you know, remember Kareem, our guy Kareem, who was on the show a little while ago, I reached out to him there in person in Arizona, but other teachers and other systems are virtual. So each place is sort of having this Omicron thing hit differently. The one thing I think I can say, just from what people wrote back to me, is that they're sort of different types of situations. There's one where you're going virtual, right? So that's me in New Jersey. We're virtual. Then there's the one where you remain in person without much of any kind of mitigation or anything. I've got a parent friend in Tennessee; they were only virtual for three months in, even when the pandemic first started. So they're not doing anything, at least in his district. Then, you know, Kareem's district and some other districts with teachers, we, we sort of reached out to, they're remaining in person, but with more testing, other measures, keeping the kids apart at lunch, which creates its own issues. And then actually, the fourth sort of situation that has sort of come up is that things are closed because of staff shortages. They wanted to stay, you know, with in-person learning, but they just weren't able to because there's not enough teachers. So that's another situation. You know, one of my colleagues here, actually, they sent their child to school in Brooklyn, and only about a third of the kids were there. And then the next day there was an email sent out. They don't know if they can hold the class, because there's not enough teachers necessarily to teach the classes. So, yeah, it's all over the place. The one thing that I think was interesting and good that I got back from, from some of the teachers and people around the country — schools did seem better prepared on the special education side to sort of deal with a possible virtual situation. You know, when the pandemic first hit, it was like, "I don't know," but I think now it just seems like from the parents of kids with learning and thinking differences who have some special education services, it seems like they, they feel more comfortable that there's already a reach-out that they're going to figure out where the services are going. So, yeah, I mean, change is the only constant, I guess, right now, but it's, it's really all over the place.

Marissa: Thank you, Andrew. That's, that's really helpful to kind of hear the scope of the entire United States, right? Because it is different depending upon where you are. And I also appreciate the fact that you've heard some positives as far as special education. I'm thankful for my current placement at my current school, because they've been in the business of virtual learning for over 20 years. And so for them, they didn't miss a beat when the pandemic happened. They were like, "We got this, because, like, this is what we do." And so it is possible, right? Virtual learning is possible. It is possible to provide a high-quality educational experience for your children. And especially for those with learning and thinking differences. And I've found — because I don't think anything in education is ever easy — but I think that I have a more effective ways in which I can support and help students with learning and thinking differences in my platform, and especially because we're not concerned or worried about the pandemic, right, like the safety piece? Like, no one's coming to my classes each day and like, "Oh my gosh, like, this kid just breathed on me or they're not wearing a mask." Like, those aren't happening. It's, like, they come to our sessions and we're just learning. Like, we do counseling online. We do occupational therapy online. So, like, it's just a matter of figuring out how to do that. Because remember, at the end of the day, like, if your student is mandated to receive services, it does not matter — like, those services have to happen. Otherwise they're not, documents not in compliance, and they're not being provided what they rightfully deserve under the law. So I think that's an important piece.

Andrew: That's not to say though, that I didn't hear a lot of anger — anger for different reasons. People are upset. So, it was a good thing that I think that, you know, that I got, did get to hear that, "Oh, they seem to be a little bit better prepared for the special education implications or special education services," but definitely, like, people are still pretty pissed off.

Julian: Well, I mean, you know, we also are hosting "The Opportunity Gap," and everything you said is definitely true. For a lot of people, virtual learning is a godsend. And for students with learning and thinking differences, in a lot of cases it's working fantastic. In many cases, even better than it was in brick-and-mortar. But I would be remiss to not bring up the fact that this virtual situation and the back-and-forth between being in school and out of school is seriously impacting people who do not have means, people who do not have the finances to maintain stable childcare, you know. And I think about everything we just talked about with our own kids, it was screaming privilege, and privilege from a financial standpoint. Like, we are privileged to be in a position where we have somebody to stay home with kids when it comes out of nowhere. You know, from an educational standpoint, I teach in one of the areas of the country that has one of the highest poverty rates of big cities in the nation. And a vast majority of our students come from very underprivileged situations. And I know for a fact that when virtual situations happen at the drop of a hat, people have to scramble to figure out what they're going to do with their kids. We don't have the opportunity to sit home and work from home. Like a lot of folks don't have jobs where you can just say, "All right, I'm going to switch to virtual," like we do. And it's a struggle for a lot of families, especially families of younger kids. But I'm thinking even of from a high school standpoint. You know, a lot of our students are going home to situations that are less than ideal. School, for many people, is a safe place. It's warm, it provides safety, it provides food. It provides people that are there to support. And without that or the lack of that, even though, like you said, all those virtual things are great, basic needs are not met for thousands, millions of kids across the country when we switch to virtual.

Marissa: And I, you know, I have to add that piece, too, Julian. I'm glad you pulled that out because it is a unique opportunity because all those positives can only work well when there are opportunities for families to be involved. Right? Like, that is the challenge of virtual learning, it's like, you can't just have a third or fourth grader by themselves in their home doing all the things, right? There has to be an adult there that's responsible and invested, as well, for virtual learning to help. So I think you're absolutely right. That is one of the biggest challenges is the dynamic or the makeup of the family, and what their access looks like is going to make or break their experience. And so you're right. Like there's a lot of things that aren't in place for all of our students out there that makes it even more challenging if they are thrown into a virtual environment without that being a choice, you know what I mean? If that's not what they're choosing, then how do you navigate that?

Julian: I was in a meeting today, and I had one of my students come in, you know, she and I check in pretty regularly. And she was telling me how I was going to be upset at her. And I was like, "Well, why, why am I going to be mad at you?" She's like, "Well, I did something that I know you'd be disappointed in." I was like, "What's that?" "I ran away during Christmas break because the situation wasn't so good at home. And I ran away for a couple of weeks. Um, you know, I'm back home now, but I'm nervous about if we're going virtual again." And I was like, "Well, why is that?" She was like, "Because I don't want to go back to the situation I was in." And, you know, so, she's telling me this, and obviously we go through the proper channels and we get the support that's needed, but this is one that just chose to open up and say this to me. How many other, how many kids are in those situations where being home for that extended amount of time is not a vacation? And it causes even more stress and more situations, but at the same token, they're going into schools that are understaffed. They're going into schools that don't necessarily have all the resources, you know, it's a fight right now to get substitutes. It's a fight to even get proper cleaning. And PPE and transportation and just all the basic things that we need schools to run with, just because the lack of staffing and just that the amount of people that are out or having to quarantine or testing positive, you know? So it's, it's kind of a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation.

Marissa: I was just thinking that. Yeah, there's no, there's no guarantee. You know what I'm saying? There's no guarantee that students' and families' needs are going to be met if they decide that this child is in-person. And there's also no guarantee that a student or a child's needs are going to be met if they're virtual. Like, and I think that's the, I think that's what makes this time period right now extra intense because it isn't like, it isn't, like, a clear-cut decision, you know? Like, it's really got to be, and that's what I'm saying, like, we can't throw shade or be upset or whatever, because, or pass judgment, because it really is, like, almost survival mode, right?

Like you got to do what's going to make sense now for your current situation. And at the end of the day, I'm still, I'm going to forever remain optimistic and hopeful that we come out of this. Just really thinking about, one, like, education as a whole hasn't changed enough in the United States over time. So I think we have to think about how we approach education and how we differentiate more and how we meet all students' needs, regardless of whether it's virtual or in person. But I also think like, this is, like, a, there's like a bigger meaning to this, you know?

Julian: It's really about thinking strategically about how we can best support those that need the support. And you know, when I'm thinking about my own role and, you know, your role and other educators' role in supporting students who have learning and thinking differences across the board, there's a lot of things that we need to figure out in how to support them in a situation where there is so much unexpected change. Like, we don't have structure. We don't have a guarantee that we're going to be in school. We don't have a guarantee that the teachers that they're normally with are going to be there. We don't have a guarantee that the programming that they're normally used to having is going to be the same from day to day. And so it's really about thinking proactively, "How do we set things up so that we can be prepared for change?" And so when I think about that from a parental standpoint with my own kids, from principal standpoint as an educational leader, the word "structure" is really what comes to mind. How do we create as much structure as possible in an unstructured world? How do we make sure that there's stability or consistency for our students, especially our kids with learning and thinking differences? You know, structure and consistency are really what they thrive on. And, you know, I know for my own kids, I'm really excited for their teachers, even though they've been home all week, the teachers have made sure to check in with them day to day through Google Classroom. They'll send little notes or respond to their notes on Google Classroom. And you know, for my second-grade son, like, he's so excited every time his teacher reaches back to him. Even though he's not in school with her personally, the fact that she takes the time to reach out to him every single day and respond to what he says, and give some feedback on his work, and make sure that she reaches out, is something that is a small way of making sure that he's seen, he's heard, he's recognized. Even though they're not together in person, the fact that she's taking the time to go above and beyond.

Marissa: And I think that's important. Like, you have to maintain the relationships, whether you are virtual or in-person. Like, the relationships we know we've, you know, talked at length before about how much of an impact that's going to make on students. And especially, when we think about our students with learning and thinking differences, they typically tend to have that one person, right? That person that they, like, rely on, and that person who, like, helps them out and does the remediation, or does whatever they need. And so I would definitely encourage families to make sure that that's not — and especially in this day and age, like, that can, 100 percent happen remotely. It could be messages, it could be emails, it could be Zooms. Like there's so many ways to continue that connection. So I'm really glad that your kids are experiencing that because that is a huge piece of it. And then I think, you know, when we think about other challenges if students with learning and thinking differences are home and are having to learn remotely, you know, I know families, and I think it's both students with learning and thinking differences and all students, like, there is this constant conversation about the gaps, right, and what are they missing? What are they not learning? How, if my student is already having a hard time and performing below grade level, like this, this time where they're not in school or in-person is going to put them back even further, we thankfully are in a time in history where like, technology is at its best, really? And so there is so much out there, and because kids nowadays are way more comfortable with online tools, there's ways in which they can get engaged through different types of games. Um, so if, you know, if, if families are out, they're worried about that gap and all of that, keep in mind that there is a lot and, like, it's continuing to get better. Like, we're fine-tuning a lot of these programs that have existed. Like if I think back, Julian, and you'll remember this, Khan Academy, remember? Back in the day, that was like, Khan Academy was, like, the coolest thing ever because it was this online tool. Now that's, like, just one of, like, literally thousands of programs out there that students can independently or collectively, in groups, work through to. 

Julian: I put it — look, I'm gonna push back a little bit. I'm the type that, you know, when I go to Acme or Giant or ShopRite, and I walk through the cereal aisle and I see that there's, like, 15 types of Cheerios. Or if I try to go get myself some ketchup and they have organic ketchup, and then they have barbecue-flavor ketchup, and Sriracha-flavor Heinz ketchup. Too many choices make me a little bit anxious and —

Marissa: Well, but that's where the educators come into play, like, I'm not saying you just give your kid —

Julian: But I'm just saying, like, look, I am an educator, so are you, but it's still really hard as a dad to, to pick something to say, "All right, there's, like, 15,000 apps out there for kids to use during this time." And it's too much. Like it's, it's too much. So for me, I really got to take some time to sit down, and my wife and I decide, "All right, tomorrow, this is what the schedule is going to be." And we write it out on a little board and we go through with it, with the kids in the morning, like, at breakfast, "From 7 to 8, we're doing this, and from 8:30 to 9, you're doing this, and from 10 to 12, you're doing this." And we pick the same apps, the same programs that we're going to do day-to-day to try to mirror what it would look like at school. And it helps alleviate some of that stress that comes with trying to pick all those different things.

Marissa: It should never be a free-for-all. And so it's about navigating those programs and feeling like you're not just being thrown out there. And I know some, I know, and it depends on the district, right? It depends on the school. Because some don't have that in place, and families are scrambling to figure out what the heck they're doing. But I'm hoping that this isn't March 2020 anymore, right? It's January 2022. So we've been at this for a while, so we should have been able to narrow it down. And it's still a very unique time in history that we have not lived through.

Julian: You know, it's a unique situation, especially, you know, for parents and for caregivers really, and especially parents and caregivers of kids of color, you know, because this hits differently, like everything does. It hits a little differently for us. And a lot of our students of color do not have that same privilege. Not to say that, you know, everybody across the country is in a dire situation. But whether they're in school and dealing with staff shortages and not having all the resources they need, whether they're virtual and they might have a difficult situation at home, whether they're dealing with the impact of systemic racism and how that all still hits, we can't forget that that's still a daily thing that impacts us all the time — financially, economically, socially, politically.

All of that is to say that parents out there, you got to talk to your kids. Don't forget them in the equation. You know, talk to them, ask them how they're feeling about things. Don't let them sit and deal with this and sit with it by themselves. No matter how young they are, no matter how old they are, you know, make sure that you're allowing them to voice how they're feeling. It makes a world of difference. And so, you know, whether you're a caretaker, whether you're a parent, whether you're a guardian, whether you have kids in your life or you don't, help the kids that are around to just know that they have somebody in their corner, somebody that is willing to listen to the concerns that they might have. And somebody that is open to comforting them.

Marissa: Trying to flip the script a little bit. This is an opportune time where we can take some time, like, education, academics, is forever going to be important. So is character. So is being a good person. So, like, this is an excellent time to reiterate that and to focus that on focus on that with families and just take a step back a little bit, like, it's OK. It's going to be — it's going to be OK. It is.

Julian: It's going to be better than OK. We as a country are going to come out of this better than we were before. We really hope that this conversation opens up some things for everybody out there that's listening and, you know, we're dealing with it just like you are, but optimism reigns supreme. So let's continue to stay that way. Keep pushing on. You're doing great. Keep doing great.

Julian: This has been "The Opportunity Gap," a part of the Understood Podcast Network. You can listen and subscribe to "The Opportunity Gap" on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Marissa: If you found what you hear today valuable, please share the podcast. "The Opportunity Gap" is for you. We want to hear your voice.

Go to to find resources from every episode. That's the letter U, as in Understood, dot O R G slash opportunity gap.

Julian: Do you have something you'd like to say about the issues we discussed on this podcast? Email us at We'd love to share and react to your thoughts about "The Opportunity Gap."

Marissa: As a nonprofit and social impact organization, Understood relies on the help of listeners like you to create podcasts like this one, to reach and support more people in more places. We have an ambitious mission to shape the world for difference. And we welcome you to join us in achieving our goals. Learn more at "The Opportunity Gap" is produced by Andrew Lee and Justin D. Wright, who also wrote our theme song. Laura Key is our editorial director at Understood. Scott Cocchiere is our creative director. Seth Melnick and Briana Berry are our production directors.

Julian: Thanks again for listening.





  • Julian Saavedra, MA

    is a school administrator who has spent 15 years teaching in urban settings, focusing on social-emotional awareness, cultural and ethnic diversity, and experiential learning.

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