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Merrick district back open for in-person work with special needs students

Merrick parent Nicole Venditti, whose son Andrew has multiple disabilities, explains what it means to have her son return to school. Credit: Newsday

Nicole Venditti said her 9-year-old son Andrew was so excited to see the school bus in the mornings that he would run to it when the driver arrived at their home in Merrick. 

Andrew, who has multiple disabilities, didn't understand why his school closed in mid-March due to the coronavirus, and struggled with virtual instruction at home, his mother said. He returned to school Wednesday, following the executive order Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed in June allowing in-person education for special needs students this summer.

"He was a little tired, but very happy and mentioned the different activities he participated in," Venditti said.

Andrew is an extended-year student in the Merrick district, which is offering classroom instruction and related therapies and services at Chatterton Elementary School. The summer session runs from July 1 to Aug. 11 for about 35 children in the K-6 district.  

The district said it is following state and federal health guidelines, including providing personal protective equipment to teachers and students, spacing students apart, limiting access to shared materials, and increasing cleaning and disinfection of learning spaces. Educators had been offering remote instruction, but decided to open classrooms after Cuomo issued his order in early June.

"At the end of the day, nothing can replace the personal connection that teachers have with students," said Salvatore Dossena, director of student services for the Merrick district. "We can do a lot virtually, but there are some things that you cannot replace."

The state Department of Education does not maintain data on how many special needs students are attending in-person summer sessions this year, as those figures are kept by local districts. But some special needs students qualify for an extended-year schedule that typically runs six weeks. 

On Long Island, both Nassau BOCES and Western Suffolk BOCES will hold virtual instruction this summer for special needs students. Cuomo said all other summer school programs will be by remote.

Julie Lutz, chief operating officer of Eastern Suffolk BOCES, said the agency will offer virtual and in-person instruction at five of its school sites this summer. The agency offered parents a choice, and about 275 students out of 1,100 enrolled in classroom instruction that starts Monday.  

The agency is providing face coverings for employees, and purchased them for students, Lutz said. Face shields also will be provided for some staff.

Some special needs students cannot tolerate wearing face coverings, Lutz said, and the staff has been made aware of that.

BOCES also has purchased polycarbonate dividers that can be set up between teachers and students, Lutz said. And BOCES is cleaning and disinfecting learning spaces, including wiping down mats and tables that are used in physical or occupational therapies.

"We have gone about reconfiguring our classrooms to make sure they are aligned with social distancing," Lutz said. The agency examined how other child care providers have accommodated children — including some on Long Island that had been caring for the children of essential workers since schools closed.

"What did they do? How effective was it?" she added. "With the health screenings they did and the face masks for adults and hand-washing — they really were able to keep students safe. That was a great beginning place for us."

In the Merrick district, seven special education teachers are working this summer, as well as teaching assistants, speech, physical and occupational therapists, Dossena said. The district is providing transportation, and a school nurse is overseeing health and safety, he said.

"Now seeing staff in the building for the past two days — they are entirely comfortable with everything that has been put in place," Dossena said. "A handful of parents did not feel as though they felt comfortable sending their children. However, the majority of parents were excited about the opportunity to have children be back with a teacher."

Venditti, who is the outgoing president of the district's Special Education Parent Teacher Association, said she is hopeful in-person instruction can resume in the fall for her son. Andrew had four major brain surgeries before he was 2 1/2 years old, including a hemispherectomy, a neurosurgical procedure where half the brain is disconnected and removed. He receives several services at school, including physical, occupational and speech therapy that is almost impossible to replicate virtually at home, Venditti said.

"I think this is the necessary first step and it is easier to distance our children because of the nature of a special education class," she said. "They are just smaller, and it affords more flexibility. The challenge will be getting our children back to school in the fall, and hopefully we can learn from this experience how we can prepare."

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