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special needs children
COURTESY AARON BURDEN/UNSPLASH

By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

Netania Zagorski’s son is nonverbal and is not toilet-trained, and therefore has many needs that must be addressed if he returns to school in the fall. Her son will be starting first grade at Bradford School, and Zagorski feels that Montclair School District’s plan for special needs students did not appear to have been assembled with any input from special needs families. Her son would be especially vulnerable if he went back to school in person, she said.

Zagorski is particularly concerned with potential difficulties with mask wearing and the concept of social distancing. 

“It’s like they never met small kids,”  Zagorski said.

Alma Schneider, founder of Montclair’s Friday Group, a support group for special needs families said when it comes to special needs children, it’s not one size fits all. 

“The disability community is diverse in many ways,” said Schneider. “But what is universal is everyone’s concern with safety.” 

On Friday, July 31, the district released details for special education students, including an in-person schedule for three-to-four hours per day, five days per week. But some parents have questioned if the plan, which would have special needs students learning in person from self-contained classes, offers enough services for special needs children, adheres to safety measures, and does not put undue pressure on the families.

As presented, the plan lacked details on remote learning or at-home support for families who preferred remote learning, Schneider said.

And with the Montclair school district announcing reopening plans, families of special needs students are concerned with having the tools to assist with their children’s learning and therapy needs, and with financial resources when it comes to additional help. 

Parents of special needs children and advocates alike are calling for the district to offer more at-home support for parents, learning that is tailored to individual students’ needs, and better communication from the school district.

Some students with disabilities may also have health conditions, and may be at risk if they return to a classroom, Schneider said. Families who wish to continue remote learning, however, will be able to continue to do so. 

However, socialization is also important, and some children, especially younger children, need the in-person interaction with teachers and classmates that cannot be replicated via computer screen.

Allison Silverstein, who is on the leadership team for the Special Education Parents Advisory Council (SEPAC), said her family is fortunate, in that her 9-year-old son took well to remote learning. 

“As far as special education goes, we’ve been pretty lucky,” Silverstein said. However, she said, while her son seemed to adapt well to virtual learning, the experience wasn’t entirely smooth. For example, she said, virtual is not the best venue for her son’s paraprofessional to work with him. 

Special education students who had been in self-contained classrooms while schools were open will receive in-person learning. Students who have been receiving other services such as speech therapy, but who had not been in self-contained classrooms while schools were open, will have schedules similar to those of general education students.  

PARENTS SURVEYED

The SEPAC team sent out a survey in June to parents of special needs children, asking for their reactions to distance learning, and what they thought the district should implement. 

The reactions to distance learning varied, with some families reporting a good experience and others reporting bad experiences. 

Parents wanted improvements with more live instruction, additional support from paraprofessionals, more small group instruction periods, school assignments that were more tailored to individual children, increased training for teachers, and remote learning plans that were consistent across schools. 

Socialization was also a concern. One suggestion was for classes to set up Google Meet sessions where students could socialize. While other parents said it was still crucial for students to get back into the classroom, saying that the in-person interaction was crucial for their children’s socialization. 

Silverstein said she was wary about sending her son back to school. “I know he will get a better education if he goes to school, but still worry constantly about everything else,” she said. 

Renee Williams said the remote learning experience has been a challenge for her two sons, ages 4 and 8, both of whom are special needs. 

“It’s just a struggle to keep them both focused and learning,” she said. “We’re just doing the best we can.”

For her older son, it can be hard for him to stay focused during Google Meet sessions, when everyone’s faces are displayed on the screen all at once. Williams said she was encouraged by the district’s announcement that there will be more one-to-one instruction. 

OPTING FOR REMOTE LEARNING

Initially when schools closed, Williams’ sons had interruptions in therapy and counseling sessions that they had been receiving in person. 

She bought several items to use at home to help with her younger son’s physical therapy, including wobble boards, a trampoline, a swing, and a massage table. All of those expenses have added up, she said. 

Williams said that she and her husband are looking to continue remote learning for the time being. 

“There’s no way that’s going to work, requiring kids to wear masks,” she said. 

The family might be interested in the children attending outdoor classes if the district took that route.

Zagorski also said her family will also opt for remote learning. For her son, it is impossible to wear a mask, and he doesn’t understand the concept of social distancing or personal space. She is however worried that all of the district’s resources may end up being channeled into in-person learning, at the expense of remote learning.

The district is expected to release additional information about the reopening plan later this week.

Schneider urged the district to prepare to provide extra support and services to special needs families who will be remote learning. Not every family, especially parents who are essential workers, has the means to afford additional child care and other support services on their own and the burden of providing services needs to be on the district, not the parents, she said.

“During this time, it’s important that kids get as much support as they can,” Schneider added.