Americans are experiencing some very unprecedented times right now, and one thing I think we can all agree on is that this year has been a rough one. There have been so many casualties during this pandemic but not all of them have been related to physical health. There is one group that has really fallen by the wayside during this and it is our special needs students. Virtual learning is a new concept that parents have all had to adapt to in a variety of ways and I wholeheartedly agree that we have all done our best, we have been patient, we have been understanding but when is it time for us to address the underlying failures of this system? Mainstream children may be struggling a bit but our special needs students are experiencing a crisis and it is not being addressed in many districts. We need a voice for these children who cannot speak for themselves. While we are constantly hearing how the schools are doing their best the question can be raised is it really “your best” and is that enough?
On June 5th Governor Murphy, who has been one of the slowest to open things in this country, announced that he is allowing school districts to reopen for in person learning beginning July 6th for the special needs ESY program. He stated that this decision was made because of the need to address the countless concerns of both parents and educators who know how critical those in person services are for those students who need it the most. The problem with this is that he left it up to the individual districts to decide. There are a lot of districts in the state that have stepped up and realized how important it truly is to have in person services and there are also districts who have opted for virtual learning for these children. Children with special needs are not benefiting from work being assigned via virtual learning. These children have IEPs (Individualized Education Programs) that include special services that fit their needs. They have therapists in place that specialize in areas to fit the students specific needs and that cannot be done virtually. Toms River Regional School District is one of the largest districts in our county and yet they have failed to step up to the plate and help these students who need it the most.
I am the parent of a special needs child in Toms River and I would like to share with you the personal experience I have had while trying to get my son the help he needs from our administration. I’m sure there are many more parents fighting this battle and trying to make sure our children do not regress and they get the proper educational experience to which they are entitled. I along with several other parents have sent countless emails to our district expressing the personal stories of how our children have struggled during virtual learning. We have shared horror stories of how all of the progress they made is now falling apart at home and it has fallen on deaf ears. I have been in touch every week for the last two months with my district about updates on the Extended School Year program. At first i was told to wait, then I was passed along to someone else, I was assured that there were meetings taking place that had our best interests at heart but what wasn’t addressed was the voice of the parents. We want and deserve a say in our childrens’ education because we are truly the ones that know what is best for them. My last email was the first one that the Superintendent actually decided to acknowledge and he repeatedly called me offensive for questioning the district’s decision. The special needs director called Murphy’s plans to reopen safely insufficient and inept. There are many districts statewide that are opening for in person ESY so that can’t be the case and it’s time to stop making excuses.
The fact that these school districts think this is acceptable is a joke. The bottom line is that therapies such as occupational, developmental, and physical cannot be done virtually. They are very technical and people went to school for years and earned degrees on how to complete these tasks. They cannot be explained to an untrained parent over a zoom call or email. There are not any other professions that contribute to the wellbeing of our children that would attempt this and say it will all work out. Can you imagine your doctor telling you that he or she is going to walk you through how to perform surgery virtually? Especially while the patient is screaming and having a meltdown in the corner? Mental health and education of our children is also important, not just physical health. There has been so much talk about doing what is best for others but special needs children have been the forgotten ones during this time. The announcement was made that even theme parks can re-open at the beginning of July. How is it okay for my child to go to Great Adventure but not okay for him to get the in person therapies he so desperately needs?
To all the parents of special needs children right now, we need to advocate for these children. It’s become clear that the districts we live in aren’t always willing to hear your voice. I hope that sometime in the future we can change that and they will never let our children slip through the cracks again.
Kelly O., Resident NJ