EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — As schools around the state closed last week due to the new coronavirus outbreak, accommodating students with special needs has become a particular concern among advocates and parents resulting in proposed legislation, calls to study the impact, and some patience.
“I think all parents of children with disabilities understand that the districts are working to the best of their abilities during this unprecedented time, but we have concerns about their regression and the recruitment of skills,” said Liz Parlett-Butcher, of Egg Harbor Township. “We’re just trying to make sure the students are getting what they need.”
Two of Parlett-Butcher’s four children are diagnosed with autism, one in kindergarten and one in sixth grade. Her biggest question in week one of the shut down was if her children would receive behavioral therapy, speech therapy or occupational therapy, as districts themselves were awaiting guidance from the New Jersey Department of Education.
Now, many of the fears and concerns are being addressed, through both trial and error and guidance from the state.
“We’re all going to work through this together. As long as they keep the lines of communication open, that’s probably going to be what any parent can ask for right now,” Parlett-Butcher said.
While parents were dealing with the sudden transition, schools were implementing plans to try and continue services remotely. Linwood Superintendent Brian Pruitt said in his district, all teachers and specialists were asked to created adapted materials for remote instruction.
“There are no specific mandates for methodologies, but we know communicating with the families is imperative. Our educators are working collaboratively with each other and with parents to be creative to continue to meet the needs of students with disabilities,” Pruitt said.
He said they have received positive feedback from students, staff and parents throughout the transition.
“We will continue to make necessary adjustments in order to meet our students’ needs on a case-by case- basis,” Pruitt said.
The question advocates are now asking is: “What are the long-term effects for special education students?”
Expecting many students to fall behind because of school closures, the advocacy group Education Law Center and eight others like Advocates for Children of New Jersey on March 19 issued a letter to state officials asking for them to convene a task force on the impact of the new coronavirus on education in both the short term and the long term.
In addition, the United States Department of Education issued supplemental guidance to clear up a “serious misunderstanding” that federal disability laws prevent schools from offering educational programs through distance or remote instruction.
Also expected to help is a bill awaiting the governor’s signature giving special education students the same educational opportunities to virtual or remote instruction “to the extent appropriate and practicable.” According to the Education Law Center, the bill specifically authorizes speech language and counseling services to be delivered electronically as appropriate.
“Essentially what both the state and the federal government seem to be suggesting is that using these online instruction may be a means to serve students with disabilities. I think it still has to be an individualized determination as to what the student needs,” said Elizabeth Athos, senior attorney for the Education Law Center
Athos said that everyone was caught unprepared for this unprecedented scenario, but it would have been impossible to say it could have been foreseen.
“But I think people are making good faith efforts to try and deal with it,” she said. “A little bit of patience is needed and trying to work together, but ultimately we need to make sure that our kids are protected, and they get what they service.”
Leslie Calabrese of Rutgers University’s Graduate School of Education, who’s an expert in special education and a board certified behavioral analyst, said students with disabilities are given individualized instruction that is based on their specific educational, physical, and emotional needs on a daily basis in the classroom. Calabrese said some of the services may have to be put on hold, but that many can and should be done virtually.
She said educators and parents need to be flexible.
“With the environment changing from school to home, teachers and parents need to realize the school day at home will not look like the school day in, well, school,” she said. “Teachers need to keep in mind that parents are not taking over their role as the teacher. Parents are potentially away from the home in work, or working from home, or unable to assist in some subjects, and the lessons should reflect that.”
Calabrese said that every student, regardless of if they receive special education, is unique and may react differently to the remote learning experience
“Transitions are difficult for some students in any situation,” she said, suggesting incorporating strategies like schedules, timers and reinforcement to transition between activities during the day.
Little Egg Harbor Township mom Christina Schadewald, who has three teenage sons at Pinelands Regional High School diagnosed with autism, said her oldest child is starting to adapt, but her twins, both seniors, are having a harder time due to the severity of their diagnosis.
“Their teacher is really trying hard every single day to do video chat and stories,” she said.
Schadewald said that as a parent, she was used to having a break during the day while her children were in school. The shift has been hard on her as they can no longer leave their home and yard.
“It is trying because they’re nonstop,” she said. “I’m afraid to take them anywhere else because they put their hands on everything. I have to keep them home all the time.”
Autism expert and psychotherapist Dr. Annette Nunez said that what parents in South Jersey are experiencing is happening across the country.
“Everything happened so abruptly,” she said. “Kids with autism and special needs they have a hard time adjusting to an abrupt change. Scheduling is really, really important and there’s so many free online schedules that parents can print out and use as a guide. It’s really important to put in things that we take for granted like breakfast, snack, breaks to go to the restroom.”
She also suggested that parents schedule themselves breaks, too.
“It’s OK to not engage your kids for the entire day. Let’s be realistic,” Nunez said. “There’s many ways to navigate it, but it’s really structuring boundaries and time frames.”
Schadewald said that although everyone is trying their best, she knows her children aren’t getting the essential services they require daily and she is concerned about the impact of that.
“We had such a high support that is so diminished at this point. It kind of puts us into, and I don’t want to say it’s a panic, I don’t think they’re getting what they need from me all the time. I’m not a teacher, I’m a parent,” Schadewald said. “We’re all trying to do the best we can.”
Parlett-Butcher said that despite the confusion, she knows she is lucky to live in a state that values education.
“You see some other schools in other states in the country where they just close their doors and they’re not having school at all. Thank God were in New Jersey,” Parlett-Butcher said.