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Oakdale learning center could serve as model for school reopenings in fall

Teachers and therapists spent much of the summer working side by side with students at the Premm Learning Center in Oakdale, which is almost a test run for full instruction in September. Credit: Newsday / Raychel Brightman

Safety precautions start before children arrive at Premm Learning Center in Oakdale. Parents are asked to confirm that children have not tested positive for COVID-19, and staffers take students' temperatures before they enter the building. Extra furniture and other equipment have been moved out of classrooms and hallways to foster greater social distancing.

The summer program with 44 students is giving students, staff, parents and educators a peek at what the fall session could look like for special education in Long Island schools, even though many more students would be enrolled, said Julie Lutz, chief operating officer of Eastern Suffolk BOCES. Lutz said there have been no positive COVID-19 cases among students and staff during the session, which started July 6.

Lutz has shared the experience with other educators on the Island. And though serving the special needs population is different, there are certain procedures all schools can follow, she said. 

"How do you do health screenings for staff? How do you do health screenings for kids?" Lutz said, adding that staff answers four health screening questions a day and temperature checks will be added in September. "How do you socially distance? Those are things that everybody is needing to figure out." 

The program at Premm, which serves students with moderate to severe developmental delays, is running for six weeks, through Aug 14. About half the students — who are not in grade levels, but range in age from 5 to 21 — are still learning at home this summer, and about 100 total are expected to return to the building in the fall, Eastern BOCES officials said.

Premm is one of five sites being operated by Eastern BOCES for in-person instruction this summer, with a total of 275 students enrolled. Eastern BOCES also is providing remote instruction for some students.

The staffs this summer have been provided personal protective equipment, handwashing is emphasized, and extra time has been built into the classroom schedule to disinfect spaces, Lutz said. Polycarbonate dividers have been made available to separate teachers and students.

"It has given us a wonderful opportunity to get feedback about what's working," Lutz said. "I will be honest, until staff showed up, they didn't really know what it would be like and how it would work."

Students eat lunch in the classrooms, but can go outside, weather permitting, Lutz said. Gym class has been converted for more independent exercise. Mats and other equipment used for therapies are wiped down and cleaned between users. 

Many of the children cannot tolerate wearing masks, and instruction often requires teachers and other educators to work side by side with students. Staff members are asked to wear masks.

"Our students pretty much require pretty intensive hand-over-hand assistance," Principal Laura Schwartz-Papaleo said. "We have extensive conversations with staff in regard to the use of PPE and hand-washing and disinfecting."

Staffers have been surveyed about improvements from the summer session, while looking toward the fall, Lutz said. 

"We have many more students that we are looking to bring back," she said, adding there has been "some concern about what's going to happen when there are more students." 

Eastern BOCES plans to open in-person learning for all of its nearly 1,600 students from 51 school districts in September. Officials with Nassau BOCES and Western Suffolk BOCES also are planning for in-classroom learning for special education in the fall.

Krisha Kurtz of Port Jefferson Station, whose 12-year-old daughter, Kali, is a student at Premm, said it was a "blessing" the school reopened this summer. Her daughter participated in Zoom lessons when school closed, but with so many faces on the screen, it was hard for her to focus.

"The principal and the whole team — they are just incredible," Kurtz said. "I feel we made the right decision by sending her back at this time, and I hope they continue through the rest of the school year."

Speech therapist Ann Ward returned to the classroom in July to work with her students for the first time since Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo closed schools in mid-March to prevent spread of the coronavirus.

"I felt pretty good," she said, adding she was given face masks, face shields and other protective equipment. When she first saw her students, "I just wanted to go up and grab them and hug them," though she knew she couldn't.

"It's been very seamless," added Ward, who works remotely with some students and at the learning center for in-person instruction two days a week. "It was so nice to see one of the little girls I work with. She made a lot of great gains virtually, but now that we are in person, I can see her just flying."

Cuomo announced in June that in-person special education could take place in districts statewide. Island districts providing instruction include Hauppauge, Merrick and Mineola.

Advocates said in-person instruction and related therapies benefit the children.

"There is an acknowledgment that special education kids are regressing and you know they need in-person instruction," said Christina Muccioli, vice president of education at AHRC NYC, which serves individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She is also the founder of the Rockville Centre Special Education PTA and served on the state Education Department’s Reopening Schools Task Force.

"They need that personal touch that only a teacher can deliver … That being the case, parents want to feel trust in their school and in their classroom and in their teachers," Muccioli said.

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