John is an 8-year-old from Verona with cerebral palsy and autism. When school is in regular session, he works directly with an aide all day. But now, with school buildings closed statewide in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, that’s not happening.
“He gets occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy,” said Regina Tully, his mother. “And obviously, since we’re home, he’s not getting, it’s not the one-on-one contact that he would normally get at school.”
John is just one of the 200,000 children in New Jersey whose education is tailored to their special needs, following individual plans often involving extra support and assistance. In many cases, that doesn’t transfer easily to the world of remote learning that state officials have put in place to get the education system past the coronavirus crisis.
Advocates say state officials must pay close attention to special-needs students and others whose learning could especially suffer during the suspension of regular instruction.
Governor is asked to set up task force
Late last week, the Education Law Center and eight other groups, including the ACLU of New Jersey, wrote to Gov. Phil Murphy asking that he create a Coronavirus Education Task Force to assess how those students are faring, both short- and long-term.
“No matter how well districts respond to the unprecedented closing of their schools, a significant number of students will fall behind educationally due to the loss of in-school services,” the Law Center said in a statement accompanying the letter. “Certain student groups are especially vulnerable to learning loss, including preschoolers, students in the early elementary grades, students with disabilities, English language learners, students who are homeless or in foster care, and at-risk students throughout the age spectrum.”
Murphy was asked about special-needs students during his daily press briefing on the coronavirus yesterday and about the worries concerning potential learning loss. Murphy said he would consider the groups’ request for a task force after speaking to education commissioner Dr. Lamont Repollet; he acknowledged that maintaining a high level of instruction is one of the challenges ahead.
“It is something we are all keenly interested in,” Murphy said. “I have four kids myself who are all remotely learning right now, and we all want to make sure. We’re the Number One public education system in America, and we’re there for a reason, and that has a lot to do with the model we have used for decades, if not centuries.”
The state Department of Education said it is taking steps to support special-needs students during the school closures.
‘Always a challenge’
“Teachers know their students the best, and they’re providing instruction in a number of ways that best meet the students’ needs, whether it is electronic or in paper, or face to face through the Internet,” DOE spokesman Mike Yaple said in a statement. “Meeting the needs of children with disabilities is always a challenge, and our educators, service providers and families are working together to provide the best instruction and services possible in these difficult times.”
Meanwhile, on the home front, parents across New Jersey are having to adjust to the new reality. But Tully and others like her face some unique issues.
A speech therapist herself, she’s working remotely while schools are closed. She says most days her family is in “survival mode.” She’s getting remote support from John’s teachers, but now she must be the physical support that he requires.
She has three kids, each with different needs.
“I have a typical 6-year-old and then a 3-year-old who’s also preschool disabled,” she said. “So it’s difficult to try and teach these three kids and also maintain work and some sense of normalcy in their lives.”
Tully had the opportunity to bring a part-time aide into their home to work with John. He has other medical complications and she feared it might put him at greater risk of getting coronavirus, but went ahead. “Ultimately the decision I made was to keep services going as long as I can to help with my mental well-being and give me some type of support,” Tully said.
She had been using the support to work with her 6-year-old, Julia. She worries that, ultimately, she might be the one most impacted by all of this. “I’ve thought about getting a tutor to work with her every day once everything does come back, because she will, she will fall behind,” she said. But the family just learned the aide now has a sick child and there’s no telling when she’ll be back. So, for now, Regina Tully is handling it all by herself.