Long Island special education professionals outline the changes and challenges special needs students have faced during the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa Loarca; Gordon Grant

Melissa Clark recalls the difficulty of doing speech therapy with her daughter, who has autism, during the months of remote learning in the spring.

Sometimes Clark, of West Babylon, said she would watch the school therapist on a computer screen demonstrate the facial shape for a word, and work with her 12-year-old to do it, only to see the lesson collapse into a mother’s corrections and a daughter’s frustration.

Long Island parents and instructors of special needs students say they learned a powerful lesson after special education students were abruptly pulled from schools due to COVID-19 in March: Their kids need to be in school. Special needs educators across the Island said they saw numerous students' abilities — both physically and academically — diminish.

For children with special needs, schools are more than a place to learn math and science — they host a spectrum of services, including counseling, and physical, occupational and speech therapy, educators said. Special needs students thrive on the structure, routine and expertise in schools. When a student regresses in school, they're not necessarily forgetting some fractions, but they're losing life skills that help them be more independent and communicate with others, educators said.

There are thousands of special education students enrolled in districts across the Island, including about 3,000 who attend specialized schools operated by Eastern Suffolk and Nassau BOCES. Their schools are subject to the same state guidelines regarding when they must close due to COVID-19 positivity rates.

Bringing these students back into the brick-and-mortar world of school came with great concerns, said Nancy Wilson, executive director for special education for Western Suffolk BOCES. Many of the students have compromised immune systems, making them more vulnerable to the ravages of COVID-19. Moreover, some students cannot wear masks and need "hand-over-hand" direct instruction where a staffer works closely with them at their desk, manually coaching them through tasks and assignments, Wilson said.

These situations play havoc with school restrictions on social distancing, but state regulations allow for such latitude in these schools, Wilson said. Students need help getting in and out of wheelchairs, moving into "standers" that help them remain upright, receiving tube feedings, going to the restroom, or stretching out on a mat so their muscles don't lock up, she said. Sometimes staff must wear goggles, gloves, gowns and a mask.

Tricia Desiderio, vice president of the Long Island Association of...

Tricia Desiderio, vice president of the Long Island Association of Special Education Administrators, said the challenge in the fall with students was to make up "lost ground." Credit: Gordon M. Grant

"If they have a seizure, you need to help them if they're dropping or falling," Wilson said.

Now, more than three months into this new academic year, school officials and parents said the transition is largely working, with kids generally adapting to the new rules.

Nassau BOCES has seen 45 cases, split pretty evenly between students and staff. Eastern and Western Suffolk BOCES have seen a total of 47 students come down with the virus and 46 staffers, according to state figures.

Wilson credits several factors: lots of meetings with parents and staff to plan and build trust, an abundance of personal protective equipment, and the "want" factor.

Brianna Clark, 12, works with speech therapist Cathy Karafa at the James...

Brianna Clark, 12, works with speech therapist Cathy Karafa at the James E. Allen Elementary School in Dix Hills. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

"The kids really want to be back in school, and the staff wants to see their kids again," Wilson said.

Students' abilities had diminished

When special needs educators opened their school doors this autumn, they said they knew they had challenges even greater than those of mainstream schools. They also knew that, despite the teachers and , some students' abilities had diminished over the months, said Tricia Desiderio, vice president of the Long Island Association of Special Education Administrators.

"They lost ground," Desiderio said.

The great majority of special ed students are back in school, some full time and others hybrid, she said. But the school environment is "less interactive," there's greater spacing between desks, and group-activity tables have disappeared, she said.

The stress of the virus is still in the air, Desiderio said, if only because teachers can't touch and hug their students as much. For special needs kids, a celebratory rub on the back or high-five can mean the world.

"We've always had our challenges. Now they're exacerbated to the ninth degree," Desiderio said.

Julie Lutz, chief operating officer for Eastern Suffolk BOCES, said she's given her staff a simple message about the students: Because of the needs of some students, it's not possible to educate them and remain 6 feet apart. We're going to provide you the PPE you need to do your job.

Stacie Rosenblatt teaches English to high schoolers at the Henry Viscardi School in Albertson, a state-supported school for disabled students requiring a specialized education with medical supports. The school has in-person instruction on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and remote the remainder of the week.

On remote teaching days, Rosenblatt is aware that some students have trouble reading on a computer, so she's taken to reading passages to them from books such as "Animal Farm" and "Make Lemonade."

When students attend class in person, the desks are spaced wide apart in a horseshoe formation. Each has plastic dividers, she said. Each student has a basket on their desk with pencils, pens and other supplies, since students can't share anymore. Students stay in cohorts in the same class throughout the day, she said.

"I'm going from class to class, plugging into the smartboards," Rosenblatt said. She's using large amounts of hand sanitizer, to the point where there's "a constant battle with dry skin."

Not wanting to make her reminders to mask up into a chorus of criticism, Jeannine Lochren, a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at James E. Allen Elementary School in Dix Hills, composed a rap song for her kids, which says, "Put your mask up, put your mask up, put your mask up."

"They sing it with me," she said. "It's just a fun way to remind them."

Speech therapy sessions fall short

Brianna Clark, a sixth-grader at James E. Allen Elementary School, lost some of her ability to speak during remote learning in the spring, her mother said.

Clark, a stay-at-home mom, worked closely with Brianna during those times. But she noticed the remote therapy sessions really didn't offer more than 15 minutes of instruction before Brianna's attention drifted elsewhere.

When enough speech therapy sessions fell short, Clark said she noticed her daughter just wasn't talking as much.

"Her biggest weakness is language," Clark said of her daughter.

Brianna can walk, and while she knows what a person is saying, and what she'd like to say, it's hard for the words to come. Clark also worried her daughter lost some muscle tone from the lack of in-school physical therapy, which tightened up Brianna's muscles and made her movements more difficult. Academic remote learning, she added, accomplished little.

"Our kids are visual learners, tactile learners, so having them look at a screen is unrealistic," Clark said.

Since returning to school, Brianna has had an aide who focuses exclusively on her. She understands she has to wear a mask and socially distance when possible, but she does not fully understand why, her mother said.

She's back on track, making progress, Clark said.

"I was very nervous" sending Brianna back into school, Clark said. "I'll knock on wood. It's been great."

Debbie Cuevas of Rockville Centre also said she worried about sending her son Dylan, 17, back to school. While his cognitive abilities are above normal, Dylan has a disease called spinal muscular atrophy, which weakens the muscles, so he needs a wheelchair and a portable ventilator.

Dylan is unable to cough on his own, which made his mother especially nervous about exposing him to other people during the pandemic. He handled his remote studies pretty well, his mother said. He cannot write with his hands, so he uses a device that tracks his eye movements, which trigger letters on a digital keyboard.

By September, Dylan really wanted to be back at school. He's a senior at the Henry Viscardi School.

"He's happy to get out of the house, even if it is to learn algebra," Cuevas said.

Dylan is looking forward to college, where he plans to study information technology. He's a little upset that the school's wheelchair basketball season was scrapped. But the senior is holding out hope that there's a prom next spring.

These days, Brianna Clark is happily attending school five days a week, following the rules and wearing her mask, though she has to be reminded sometimes to keep it above her nose, her mother said.

"I cross my fingers every day that we'll be able to keep kids in school," Melissa Clark said.

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