39,000 NYC students with disabilities attend school year-round. Their parents are bracing for the summer.

Kristen Collins’ son, Matty, sits at a kitchen table with a laptop.
Kristen Collins’ 14-year-old son, Matty, attends a school for students with disabilities all year round. (Courtesy of Kristen Collins)

Grisel Cardona has worked hard to keep her 9-year-old son, Christopher, who has autism, connected to school since buildings shut down in March.

She coordinated with his therapists to continue speech and occupational therapy. Christopher, who attends the Vida Bogart School for All Children in the Bronx, is completing assignments that range from two-digit addition to writing his address and phone number. He is tuning in to Friday video conferences so he can interact with his peers.

But Cardona fears that remote services aren’t keeping the fourth-grader from sliding backward. “He’s writing huge again — he’s forgetting how to tell time,” Cardona said. “Losing that educational time in person is like losing years of memory or work.”

Christopher is one of 39,000 New York City students who receive year-round special education services, typically reserved for those who have more serious needs including autism or communication delays, and are at greatest risk of losing ground over the summer.

Many of those students attend District 75 programs, which serve students with the most profound disabilities, and often continue school over the summer.

Parents are worried that the limits of remote learning will be felt even more acutely over the summer, as many students with complex disabilities are already struggling to cope with the loss of routine, access to social groups, and are at greatest risk of falling further behind.

“For these families, these last few weeks have been exponentially more difficult,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children. “The parents are being parent, teacher, service provider, healthcare worker to their children right now at the same time they’re trying to do their jobs or take care of their other children.”

Grisel Cardona’s son, Christopher, practices writing his address and phone number. (Courtesy of Grisel Cardona)

Education department officials have promised to continue special education instruction and services for students who typically receive them over the summer, but it’s unclear whether any students will have access to school buildings and the routines that come with them.

“We are looking into ways to provide in-person services as soon as possible, and we are monitoring every student’s progress throughout this period in order to prioritize targeted support and intervention for students based on their unique needs,” Danielle Filson, an education department spokesperson, said in a statement. Officials said a decision would be made based in part on state and federal guidance.

Some parents are reaching a breaking point and are pushing for in-person services to resume this summer, even on a limited basis, especially as other outlets such as public pools and many summer programs will be shut down.

Kristen Collins, a third-grade Brooklyn teacher who teaches a mix of special- and general education students, has struggled to watch her own 14-year-old son Matty’s emotional well-being unravel over the past several weeks as his normal routine has been blown apart. 

Before coronavirus, the teen, who has autism and a limited ability to communicate, had occasional outbursts. Now behaviors that can involve hitting, biting, and even destroying furniture, have become a daily occurrence.

“It really takes an emotional toll on the family. He can’t go on like this and the family can’t go on like this,” she said, noting that it has been a challenge to teach her students on top of her own children. Their family has tried to adapt their home to meet Matty’s sensory needs, including buying a trampoline, little foot massagers, and a rocking chair.

Matty attends a school operated by Birch Family Services in Queens, a private program  approved by the state and that is publicly funded. He meets with his occupational therapist twice a week via Zoom, working on handwriting, connecting the dots using a mouse, and watching interactive “Go Noodle” videos during breaks. 

“The only thing is keeping him going is when he does a face-to-face session with his [occupational therapist] or his class,” Collins said, noting that he doesn’t have the patience to complete assignments through Google Classroom. After his speech therapist took a leave of absence, Collins felt it wasn’t a good time to introduce Matty to a new therapist — and keeping up with his speech has been a challenge.

Collins is hoping officials will open school buildings, even if on alternate days, to allow students with more profound disabilities to return to some semblance of normalcy. Many classrooms that serve students like Matty limit class sizes to 12 students, with multiple teachers and aides, meaning staggered schedules could theoretically allow for more aggressive social distancing, similar to the protocols at childcare centers for essential workers.

Still, some parents are apprehensive about sending students with more complex disabilities into the outside world, either due to health vulnerabilities or the challenges associated with enforcing social distancing or hygiene practices. And the city’s teachers union has signaled its reluctance to head back into classrooms without guaranteeing educators’ safety.

“I’m very fearful of long periods of breaks throughout the year,” said Amy Tsai, a Bronx parent of five, one of whom has autism and attends a District 75 program in Upper Manhattan. “He becomes isolated, he becomes more in his box, it will lessen his communication skills and socialization.” 

Amy Tsai with her son, Seanmichael’s McClanahan. (Courtesy of Amy Tsai)

But, she said, “we decided as a family that we will not send out kids until there is massive testing,” which would allow officials to isolate those who are infected and reduce the virus’ spread. She is also worried about a mysterious new inflammatory illness that has seriously affected some children and appears linked to the coronavirus.

That doesn’t mean Tsai is sanguine about remote learning. It took five weeks before her children received iPads from the education department and, even then, the effectiveness of virtual lessons has been limited. Tsai has filled in some of the gap with her own lessons about George Washington. 

“There’s no way we can get back these last few months,” she said. “We’re kind of going day by day.”

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