in-person education critical

Going back to work or back to school takes a bit of adjustment after months of COVID-related isolation. In addition to exchanging sweatpants for business attire, many of us are re-learning a few social skills that may have atrophied after months of staring at a screen.

So, imagine the readjustment process for young people with autism, individuals who struggle to attain the socialization skills most people take for granted.

I co-founded Phoenix’s Gateway Academy with Dr. Thomas Bloom to serve students (6th through 12th grades,) who are academically capable, and diagnosed with a level 1 Autism Spectrum Disorder.

To protect the health and safety of our students last year, we quickly made the transition to remote learning, when schools were compelled to close because of COVID. 

But when our students left the classroom, I knew the hard work would begin, once the health crisis subsided. Indeed, the lost ground in terms of social skills can be tragic. But it’s not permanent. What was lost can be retaught.

Our school has twin missions, giving students the academic skills to achieve their collegiate and career goals, and giving them the social skills to lead fulfilling and complete lives. The latter can only be accomplished through in-person learning.

We are not the only school making this readjustment. I am sure mainstream learners and their families are re-learning a few lessons, when it comes to social interaction.

 For most autistic students, the process is exponentially more challenging. Autistic children need in person social interaction to keep those social-emotional skills in the forefront of their minds. 

Arizona is indeed fortunate to have the Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program which gives parents the opportunity to send students to our school, and those like it, tuition free. Under normal circumstances, this gives parents an effective and exciting option. Post-COVID, it can be a lifeline for families of autistic children.

As classes resume across Arizona, this is a challenging time for all teachers. I like to think it is a most welcomed challenge. There is no higher calling than educating young minds, whether that involves learning long division or learning to form long term relationships with peers.

I tell our parents autism is an explanation, and does not define their children. High Functioning Autism should not deter their children from having full, successful, and productive lives. Likewise, the prolonged isolation following COVID need not be an obstacle to getting students back on track and comfortable with in person learning.

It’s an exciting time to be a teacher. It’s especially exciting when you’re teaching exceptional students such as ours. The COVID crisis brought our mission into focus and I believe Gateway, as well as most Arizona schools, learned some valuable lessons and are better off for it. We’d better be. The lives of so many are depending on it.


O. Robin Sweet is executive director/CEO of Gateway Academy, which offers a private education for students in grades 6-12 with a diagnosis of a Level 1 Autism Spectrum Disorder. Information: or 480-998-1071. 


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