Even on coronavirus lockdown, school tries to meet students’ special needs for normalcy

Posted Apr 26, 2020

Owen Castro didn’t hesitate when asked if he missed face-to-face classes at the Phoenix Center, a state-certified, privately run school in Nutley that provides academic instruction and other services to students with special needs.

“My teachers, my friends, everything,” said Owen, who’s 13 and lives in Fair Lawn.

But asked whether he preferred going to school, like he did before the coronavirus outbreak, or staying at home, he was less decisive.

“That’s a great question,” said Owen, who’s been diagnosed with cognitive impairment and developmental delays, which means that learning takes more time for him. Then, after thinking about it, he said, “Being at home.”

“Obviously, there are other things he can entertain himself with,” Owen’s father, Franklin Castro, chimed in on speaker phone during a recent interview.

Like most students, Owen is learning remotely these days, after the Phoenix Center and the state’s other public and private schools were ordered closed for in-person instruction last month.

And while the adjustment has been a challenge for many mainstream teachers, students and parents — as well as the inspiration for some innovative lesson plans — the switch to online learning can be particularly challenging for students with learning disabilities because of their broader aversion to change generally, experts say.

“Students with autism crave that sameness, regularity,” said Julie Mower, executive director of the Phoenix Center, which has 144 students from 64 districts in eight counties, from Sussex down to Monmouth. “I think what has been uncovered with this situation is, we all crave a schedule. But for our students, it’s compounded. And what we’re finding is, for many of the students, their functioning level does require a lot of collaboration with the parents.”

New Jersey and federal guidelines for educating students during the coronavirus outbreak require that students’ special needs continue to be accommodated under their individualized education plans, or IEPs.

And while Phoenix and other special education facilities began implementing remote learning at the same time that mainstream schools did in mid-March, the state Board of Education formalized the practice on April 1, amending special education rules to mandate online education and related services for special needs students.

“These rule modifications enhance the ability of school districts and educational agencies to satisfy their legal obligations to provide a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) to students with disabilities during a period of extended school closures resulting from COVID-19,” Peggy McDonald, New Jersey’s assistant commissioner of education for student services, wrote in an April 3 memo informing districts of the board’s action.

The Phoenix Center, like many mainstream and special needs schools, has used software integrating Google’s educational and meeting platforms, Classroom and Meet, to facilitate online learning. Google recently announced that it was extending free use of the integrated Classroom/Meet software until July 1 to accommodate demand from schools.

Beyond what mainstream schools do, Phoenix also proscribes “table-top,” or confined-space, physical activities for students to engage in with parental participation, within a timeframe of 8:30 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. on weekdays that mimics students’ regular school schedule, contributing to a sense of normalcy.

Students are given more conventional assignments, i.e., homework, in standard academic subjects, and then follow up with direct online instruction in small groups.

For example, the center’s nurse created a video on how students should wash their hands, complete with an original hand-washing song. Students watch the video, the nurse then follows up with two students and a classroom teacher in a live Google Meet setting to make sure students have learned the hand-washing lesson.

Staff hold virtual IEP meetings with each other and with parents. And individual students are able to schedule informal online meetings with staff members of their choice to satisfy their desire to continue connecting personally.

“Because they miss particular teachers, which is sweet,” said Mower. Mower said the Phoenix Center was fortunate because its teachers began training on Google Classroom long before the coronavirus lockdown, and had a head start. “It’s exciting to see it in action,” she said. “So far, so good.”

Other schools, including those in the mainstream, have built less structure into their online learning programs, which provides flexibility that can be valuable in a world turned upside down by the virus, but also leaves it up parents to have their children spend adequate time, during reasonable hours, to get their work done and their lessons learned.

“The parents are responsible for quite a lot right now,” Mower said. “You can’t leave it all on the parents.” And thank goodness they don’t, said Owen’s mom, Michele Castro, who now works at home for the finance department of a Manhattan hospital, and splits time looking after Owen’s schooling and other needs with his father.

“The Phoenix Center has made it not as taxing as what I’ve heard of in other districts,” Castro said.

As for her son’s need normalcy, she added, “They’ve been able to keep this as day-to-day as possible.”

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