As thousands of students across Long Island receive home instruction, school districts also have to meet the needs of their special education students. Michael Hynes, superintendent of the Port Washington school district, offers his insight as an educator and parent. Credit: Newsday Staff

When school was in session, Shannon Reilly, who has cerebral palsy, received several services — from speech therapy to physical therapy — each week at Brookhaven Learning Center at Samoset Middle School.

But with schools closed since mid-March because of the COVID-19 crisis, Shannon's mother, Danni Reilly of Bayport, has had to create a special needs school setting for her 17-year-old daughter at home.

With the coronavirus forcing children across the country to distance learn, the crisis is compounded for special needs students and their families. A recent survey by The Education Trust-New York showed that New York City suburban parents of students with disabilities reported much higher levels of stress than usual, and those parents are particularly concerned about their child's mental health.

There are thousands of special education students enrolled in districts across Long Island, including about 3,000 who attend specialized schools operated by both Eastern Suffolk and Nassau BOCES.

The new normal can be grueling, for parents and their kids.

Danni works from a packet specifically designed for Shannon by her teachers and therapists. Meetings with the speech therapist and other therapists are done via teleconference. Eastern Suffolk BOCES sent an adaptive bicycle to the home, and Danni helps Shannon use it.

“I have to keep [her] on a routine because that is what she is used to,” Danni said. Danni leads exercises that have been sent by Shannon's gym teacher and helps with homework as well. Lessons have been sent for art and music. Danni also handles phone calls, emails and Zoom meetings with teachers and service providers on a daily basis.

“It is very overwhelming for the parents," Danni said. "The teachers, at least for me, they are very much there. They are realizing how much work there is, and they are having us pace ourselves.” 

Educators said they had to move quickly to get equipment to their students, using school buses for delivery. Educators said they continue to track students' plans and goals.

"What we felt was most important was that the kids need a continuity of connection and services on a daily basis," said Peggie Staib, associate superintendent for educational services for Eastern Suffolk BOCES. She recently received an email from a parent sharing that the entire family joined in on a physical therapy session for the student at home.

"We are making it a priority to remain connected. We feel it is important for our students not to feel isolated," Staib added.

Because of the crisis, the state Education Department said it would be as flexible as state and federal laws allow in determining how instruction is provided to students with disabilities.

Port Washington Superintendent Michael Hynes, whose daughter Sadie is in the first grade at Sunrise Drive Elementary School in Sayville and has Down syndrome, said she carries her class photo around the house and recently had a teleconference with her speech therapist.

"We got to see her [speech therapist] and speak to her, and it is hard to put in words how priceless that connection is," Hynes said. "It is not human to human, but it is pretty darn close. She could see and hear how much her teacher misses her."

Hynes said if students do not receive the services they are entitled to by law, school systems may have to find a way to make them up later in the year.

"We are flying this plane in midair and then building it at the same time, and that is very difficult to do for general education students, and that is even more difficult for special education and our ENL [English as New Learners] kids," he said.

Audra Cerruto, associate dean and director of graduate programs in the School of Education and Human Services at Molloy College in Rockville Centre, said there are some services that are difficult to deliver remotely — especially for behavioral issues.

"If a child needs certain types of interventions, that might be very hard for a parent to deliver at home," she said. "Parents may also be working from home and have other children to care for as well." 

Stephanie Allen, executive director of pupil personnel services for the Port Washington district, said educators have been flexible in meeting the needs of parents who work from home, including speaking with them to set up a structure that works, modifying assignments and keeping in contact after school hours.

For students who have trouble sitting in front of a computer or an iPad, Allen said educators "are working more with the parents on how to work with a student on an activity."

With Nassau BOCES, students, when in school, are often in smaller classes and have a teacher's aide, who assists them during the day. Nassau BOCES now is using video conferencing platforms for instruction and to provide services.

Educators also are trying creative approaches to keep students engaged, said Roxanne Garcia France, associate superintendent for curriculum, instruction and educational services at Nassau BOCES. Some teachers held a spirit week for students and a pajama day. Another teacher created a video lesson on how to build a bird feeder and observe birds in their natural habitat.

"Every day our staff members, from the administrators to the teachers to the teacher aides and to the related service providers, are finding unique and different ways to engage our students," Garcia France said. 

In addition, with school systems statewide being ordered to provide a food distribution plan, Nassau BOCES staffers have been delivering meals to students' homes for those who have special dietary needs such as pureed food, Garcia France said.

Dealing with stress

A poll released Wednesday by The Education Trust-New York and conducted by Global Strategy Group found that in the suburbs around New York City, including Long Island, parents of children with disabilities reported higher levels of stress than usual.

  • The poll found 41% reporting much higher levels of stress than usual (compared with 40% among parents overall).
  • Parents of children with disabilities are particularly concerned with ensuring their child’s mental well-being while they are at home (50% say this is very concerning, compared with 44% of parents overall).

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