For Stacy Heskett’s son, routine is essential.
Cohen, a first grader at Yukon Public Schools, has autism and obsessive compulsive disorder. His school has been closed this week for the teacher walkout. Similar to many people with autism, he prefers routine.
“He knows Monday through Friday is school, so anything that disrupts that is difficult,” Heskett said.
She also worries daycares and community activities offered to students during the walkout won’t be suited for Cohen. Large groups overwhelm him.
“Do they know how to handle an autism meltdown? That’s a nice option, but I don’t think so,” Heskett said.
As the teacher walkout enters its fourth day, dozens of schools across the state have remained closed. Though several communities have offered activities and daycare programs for students during the shut down, the majority aren’t equipped to care for children with special needs.
The shutdown has posed unique challenges for those children, their parents and caregivers.
Though Heskett strongly supports the teacher walkout, it has been challenging for her and Cohen, she said.
Heskett, who works five days per week, considers herself lucky because she has family nearby to support her and help keep an eye on her son. But she wants to keep Cohen involved in activities and doesn’t feel comfortable dropping him off at community centers.
Cohen can’t verbally communicate well, but can answer Heskett’s “yes” or “no” questions.
“It’s hard because I don’t trust anyone to take care of my child because he can’t express to me what he did that day,” Heskett said.
Before the walkout, Heskett learned Cohen was struggling in his class. She worries the break in school will be detrimental.
She tries to explain the walkout and school closures to Cohen, but he doesn’t understand.
“He gets upset because he loves school and he wants to be with his friends,” she said. “I’m in support of the walkout, but it’s definitely been difficult and it will be difficult when he gets back (to school).”
Aislinn Steiner, a mother of three living in Piedmont, and her children have also had trouble adjusting to the school closures.
Steiner has two kids with special needs. Her son, 7, has ADHD and Asperger’s syndrome. Her other son, 2, has special needs that have not yet been diagnosed.
Her 5-year-old daughter is also home while schools are closed.
Steiner’s 7-year-old son has behaviors commonly seen in people with Asperger’s syndrome. Sometimes he has outbursts, and he likes to stick to a routine.
Her son, who goes to Piedmont Public Schools, has had a hard time adjusting to the walkout. It’s been difficult for Steiner, too.
“He doesn’t sleep, he’s extremely irritable. He’s just in a constant state of distress,” Steiner said. “It’s made for a really awful week.”
Steiner takes two of her children to therapy in Edmond — about 30 minutes away — up to six times per week.
“We do drive all over for therapies so it’s hard for me anyway, but now I have two extra kids that have to go along with me,” she said.
But Steiner said despite the challenges, she supports the walkout.
“As long as they have to strike I want them to do it because they need the funding,” she said. “But we are ready to be back in the classroom with the teachers.”
Some of the students in Josh Fearing’s class don’t talk often, but the week before Oklahoma’s teacher walkout started, one of children was worried.
“School on Monday?” the student kept asking.
Fearing teaches special education to children with autism at a middle school in Norman Public Schools. Because many of his students have trouble adjusting to new schedules, he decided to open a “student hangout” at a church in Norman during the teacher walkout.
“I wanted to make sure we had a place to keep a routine, but also parents who have to work, they can’t just trust any person,” Fearing said.
Fearing, along with volunteers, has cared for four to eight students each day.
“And Monday I watched a kid, and his mom and siblings went to the Capitol to advocate,” Fearing said. “It’s kind of my way of supporting.”
Sooner SUCCESS helps coordinate services for youth with special needs across the state. In preparation for the teacher walkout, the organization offered emergency respite vouchers for parents and caregivers of children with special needs.
The vouchers allowed working parents or caregivers to choose someone to care for their children and gave them up to $60 per day for five days to pay for the services.
Lori Wathen, Region 3 coordinator for Sooner SUCCESS, said the demand has been overwhelming.
“We have issued over 70 (vouchers),” Wathen said, “and I’ll be honest, we only have the funding to do 100.”
It’s unclear whether the teacher walkout will last into next week, and applications for emergency vouchers are currently closed. However, Wathen said, the organizers of the program plan to ask funders whether money is available to extend the offer.
“I 100 percent support these teachers and what they’re doing,” Wathen said. “I applaud what they’re doing. We will figure out childcare until they are satisfied with our Legislature.”