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Stories and information in our region on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Virtual Learning Challenged Special Needs Kids. Now, A Challenging Start To In-Person Learning.

Elaine Thompson

Educators who work with kids with special needs say they lose more than learning when schools go virtual. They lose access to key human interactions. Going back to school amid the pandemic this month for in-person learning is a challenge for kids, teachers and educators.

Bill Bucnher, WSHU: Michael Smith heads ACDS of Long Island and Westchester County. The group provides preschool to children with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

Michael, thank you for joining All Things Considered.

Michael Smith: Thank you.

BB: Describe if you can briefly a day of preschool for a child and their parents and teachers. What has it been like under the current situation?

ACDS Executive Director Michael Smith walks Plainview student Cooper to class.

MS: So, it's just been a little over a week now. The children were just thrilled to be back in school across the board. I've been back and forth between two schools each day.

The children have gotten right back into the swing of things. They're coming to school happy, they're happy to see their friends, many of them as, as we have been, have been fairly isolated for the last six months. I think it's been more difficult on the parents than on the children.

We're not letting parents into the school building just out of a proportion in terms of COVID. And so we're picking up parents, if parents delivered their children, we’re meeting them outside the school building and bringing them in, and that's where the goodbyes are said. Previously, we regularly had groups of parents, sometimes 30-40 parents and grandparents in the lobby of the school all greeting each other, the kids greeting each other. And that's been lost.

That’s just not possible in this environment, but the kids have adapted well. They're very happy to be back. And one of the things you said in your introduction was right on target that the social aspect of school, we serve three to five year olds with intellectual and developmental disabilities, the social aspect of it is critical to them. And we certainly seen with a number of our children that while they were away for these six months, and we were still teaching them virtually all through, including through the summer, is there was identifiable regression in some cases but they these kids are very resilient and they seem to be getting up to speed very quickly.

BB: After the children have been dropped off during the school day, how have you balanced the concerns of parents for social distancing and safety, and the special needs of students?

MS: Well, to begin with, about a month before school reopened, we put plans up on our website for each school. The two schools are having slightly different models of how we're delivering the service. So parents had the opportunity to see what our plans were. We were in constant touch with the parents and surveyed them in terms of what their concerns were and what they were looking for. Parents have had the option at both sites to stay totally virtual if they want to, and some have done so. I think we've got about 25 or so families in each school, who are remaining totally virtual for now. I think they just want to be sure that our protocols are good, that the children are safe, that their health is protected. And we're already seeing some of the parents who started out virtually come back and our staff goes out. We have one aide who meets each child and we take all the time necessary to talk to the parents and answer any questions they may have. But I think that the best thing for them is just to see, you know, that their kids are happy and comfortable back where they are. And in many cases, they can see when they bring them home at night, how the child is in a better place than they were in the last six months.

BB: How do you explain to a special needs preschooler that they need social distance and to wear a mask? When we have so many adults having trouble following those rules?

MS: Well, that's a good one. Um, first of all, we do not mandate masks for the children. We mandated for the staff, all administrators, all the pedagogues wear masks all the time. If the parents choose to send the child in with the mask, we will make every effort to have the child wear it all during the day. And it's been kind of a mixed bag. But the idea is to try to accommodate the kids as best as possible. We have children who we serve, who just simply cannot tolerate the mask. And it also does interfere a little bit with some of the delivery of some of the therapeutic services. Things like speech therapy, where the children may be dependent on you know, on imitating the shape of the mouth, the use of that tongue, whatever it may be. It complicates things a little bit. New York State has not mandated masks for children of this age in the school so we accommodate the wishes of the parents and the children's ability to tolerate it.

BB: There are some teachers who say special needs students who need the most hands-on, one-to-one care could make it difficult to limit the spread of the virus. Has this pandemic created staffing challenges for you?

MS: Yes, different ones at the two schools interestingly enough. My Long Island School has been established for over 50 years. We have generally had an older staff and we lost some very talented professional staff. Either because of their age or a pre-existing medical condition, it just didn't feel safe coming back. At the Westchester School, which was starting our fifth school year, we lost six or seven teacher assistants. So they were generally younger staff who are young moms and their local school districts are staying totally virtual. And they have other children at home. So, they have taken leaves and we've lost some staff there among the younger staff. So it's been difficult despite, you know, the unemployment rates right now are recruiting in this environment on relatively short notice at the start of the school year has been challenging. So, we're doing okay, we have ratios that are made, you know, we try we have to maintain and, you know, therapies that have to be delivered. So we scramble a little bit but you know, so far, so far, so good two weeks into it.

BB: You mentioned before that the students are happy to be back. I guess the return to a routine to normalcy is very important for these students.

MS: Yeah, it absolutely is. And it's something they know and it’s interesting. Even the ones who are new to us because we turn over about 50% of our student body each year. Even the ones who are new to us are very welcome. One of the great things at both our schools is, you know how joyful it is every morning when the kids arrive and happy to see their friends and happy to see the staff. And we have a lot, usually there's a lot of, you know, hugging going on and everything. We've got to downplay that a little bit in this environment. So it's a little bit more subdued than it is normally. And it's interesting because the parents sometimes are the ones who may be showing, you know, tears in their eyes while their kids go running in to see their friends. So it's the reverse of what you might expect sometimes but the parents know that they're in a good place.

Michael Smith is the executive director of ACDS of Long Island and Westchester County.

Bill began his radio journey on Long Island, followed by stops in Schenectady, Bridgeport, Boston and New York City. He’s glad to be back on the air in Fairfield County, where he has lived with his wife and two sons for more than 20 years.