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School for severely disabled children hoping for some normalcy in fall

Ricardo Argudo, 10, left, of Flushing, Queens, and

Ricardo Argudo, 10, left, of Flushing, Queens, and Maxwell Kriedter, 9, of Westbury, play with Sunny, a facility dog, at the Henry Viscardi School in Albertson on Wednesday. Credit: Danielle Silverman

On remote learning days, students at the Henry Viscardi School missed their friends, teachers and Sunny, the specially trained yellow Labrador retriever who greeted them each morning and joined them in class.

That was last school year.

The school in Albertson for severely disabled children started its 2021-22 term earlier this month with a return to five days of in-person instruction, along with a remote option. Educators are planning — if the state approves — for nearly all the K-12 students to be on-site this fall and for them to resume their after-school activities.

What to know

The Henry Viscardi School In Albertson serves severely disabled children in grades K-12 who need medical treatment during the day. Most students there use power wheelchairs and augmentative communication technology. 

The students have a variety of disabilities, including Cerebral Palsy, Muscular Dystrophy, Multiple Sclerosis, Spina Bifida, Traumatic Brain Injury, Osteogenesis Imperfecta and Spinal Muscular Atrophy.

The school switched to full virtual learning at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and ran on a hybrid schedule this past school year with three days in and two days out, while also offering a full-remote option.

Educators are planning — if the state allows — for nearly all students to be on-site this fall, with a full resumption of after-school activities.

"I'm hopeful they all come back. You can't replicate being in-person remotely — it is just not the same," said Angelo Zegarelli, who is Viscardi's Head of School.

The year-round school switched to full virtual learning at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, then ran on a hybrid schedule this past school year, with three days in-person while also offering a full-remote option.

The nearly 60-year-old school draws about 175 students from throughout the region, including from Nassau and Suffolk counties, New York City and sometimes even further out. It provides a traditional setting for students with disabilities, including those deaf and blind, who often require life-sustaining medical treatment. The school fills the needs of students that local districts cannot meet, such as supporting physical accessibility, medical support and assistive technology.

The state-supported Viscardi is one of 11 such schools in the state and one of three on Long Island. There are no costs to parents, as school districts pay Viscardi and then are reimbursed by the state.

Educators at the school said they have placed a renewed focus on social and emotional learning for students who may have felt isolated during this COVID-19 pandemic.

"We are like a family, and part of that is the one on one with the kids and knowing everything about them," third-grade teacher Christina Pavone said. "It is very hands-on, and they love talking to each other. We missed all of that, and that was really hard."

Pavone said classes are mixed for the summer, "And some of the kids are meeting new friends."

When the pandemic hit, the school already had experience in offering remote instruction — to students who missed class due to surgeries and other medical issues, Zegarelli said. One issue was that the school had to quickly pivot to remotely serve all its students, he said.

"We made a connection with every single child," he said, and delivered devices to them.

When the school went to hybrid instruction, about 60% of the students were in-person and 40% chose fully remote "for lots of different reasons," Zegarelli said. "Families were just still scared.

"Every student here has some type of physical disability, but with that often came some type of medical need," he added. "Every child here needs some kind of medical treatment during the day, so that fear of COVID was a legitimate fear."

The school reported 18 COVID-19 positives going back to September — six students, four teachers and eight staff — according to the state's coronavirus report card. The spread was not from school, but came from outside infections, Zegarelli said.

The school closed last year for two weeks, one week as a precautionary measure around the holidays and another week when there were two reported cases over a short period of time.

This fall, educators are planning to again offer activities such as wheelchair basketball, a Friday night recreation program, and overnights at the campus' independent living house, where students learn to be on their own in preparation for college or work. In addition, students will receive therapies that are difficult to replicate at home.

Maxwell Kriedter, 9, of Westbury, said he is looking forward to Friday recreation night. "It sounds [like] fun," he said. "You can do art; you can do gym."

Maxwell also would like to spend more time with Sunny, who is Viscardi's first "facility dog."

Sunny's training was broadcast on NBC's Today show before coming to the school. He waits at the school's entrance every morning with Dina Levanti, the school's instructional technology specialist. Sunny often walks with students in the hallways, he can follow commands by students when they are in speech therapy, and often rests his head in their hands when they are feeling anxious.

He even helped during virtual learning by showing up on Zoom lessons and turning the pages of a book with his snout.

"He's not just doing tricks, he is actually helping them," Levanti said. "There's going to be situations where they are having some uncomfortable days and he just knows. He goes right up to them."

Viscardi leaders, like other administrators across New York, are awaiting guidance from the state on whether they can offer a remote option in the fall or go only in-person. They are also awaiting word from the state on masking. Currently, the school requires masks indoors on the campus, but they recently lifted the outdoor requirement.

"We are trying to get back to a new normal, but we are quite used to using masks. We are quite used to using dividers in the classrooms," said John Kemp, president and CEO of The Viscardi Center and president of Henry Viscardi School. "I think our students are quite used to being safe, so it is not going to be disturbing to them if masks are required."

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