EDISON, N.J. — Samantha Wagensommer expected to finish her last semester on Stockton University’s campus and walk in her graduation ceremony this month.

Instead, she’s been back home in Manahawkin since March, finishing her degree remotely and taking on the role of helping teach her little brother Dean, an 18-year-old who has autism spectrum disorder.

Dean normally goes to school nearly year-round at Southern Regional High School. He had a teacher and peers, as well as a personal aide and therapists who guided him through occupational therapy exercises, vocational training and speech therapy to learn nonverbal communication skills.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Then the coronavirus pandemic upended life in New Jersey.

Now, on a good day, Wagensommer’s family can get Dean to sit down with an iPad and go through stories read by a teacher. His teacher and therapists check in regularly, and try to keep up with him, but Dean is nonverbal, which makes any communication that’s not taking place in person a challenge. And without the structure of the classroom, getting Dean to focus is difficult.

“I do understand, of course, having online school,” Wagensommer said. “I think that the people that are making decisions are looking out for the public interest. When it comes down to it, nothing replaces the education that he was getting beforehand.”

New Jersey has more than 200,000 students in special education programs. They include those with intellectual disabilities, those on the autism spectrum — like Dean — and those with physical limitations or in need of emotional support. Within even those smaller classifications, kids have different needs and abilities, and the support their families can provide varies.

It is why experts, teachers and caregivers contend students in special education stand to lose the most as remote learning continues.

In April, the state Board of Education voted to allow virtual services and tele-health appointments for students with disabilities under the state of emergency after advocates petitioned Gov. Phil Murphy’s office. The exception followed a mad dash to restructure schooling, sometimes with only 48 hours notice, as educators distributed laptops to students and organized school lunch pickup as the state pivoted to home instruction.

Advocates also asked the state to recognize that not all services, like physical therapy, can be given electronically or safely. While a step forward, some worry that the closing of schools for the remainder of the academic year will take a significant toll on students with special needs, especially those with lesser means.

“Special education looks so different for a privileged family than it does in other places,” said Jessica Bacon, a professor of teaching and learning at Montclair State University. “I think this is going to reveal some of those deeper issues within our systems around equity. There’s some basic things, therapies that can’t be done.”

Educators know they will have to address the gaps created by remote learning when they return to the classroom. But many worry those chasms will be greater among children who had difficulty accessing online learning, or who did not have parents readily available to take on the burden of becoming stand-in teachers.

“I think some of that will require some compensatory services and support,” Bacon said. “I think a lot of people really do fear that kids will regress in a lot of ways.”

As students return to a new normal, officials will have to juggle social distancing in schools and ramp up cleaning procedures. But they may also need new programs to support students. All of this will come as the state budget tightens, and school districts grapple with the economic fallout of the coronavirus crisis.

Wagensommer, who plans to start graduate school in the fall to become an occupational therapist, said she will try to help Dean with assignments, like coloring in the lines or dressing himself. But overall, she guessed Dean might be getting only an hour of instruction a day.

But he has lots of energy and needs constant supervision. Wagensommer said the family can’t explain to Dean why he’s not in school each day or how the outbreak has transformed their lives.

“It’s stressful. All of us are trying to take on a role,” she said, explaining her mother left her job as a pharmacy tech to care for Dean full time and to avoid the risk of contracting the virus and spreading it to him. “It’s been hard overall. We’re doing the best we can.”

Wagensommer wishes more officials would address the challenges students with disabilities — and their families — have faced over the past two months.

“My school district is lucky enough that they have the occupational therapists, the physical therapist, the teachers that are caring and connecting to their job,” she said. “They reach out to Dean. They’re worried about him. I do know that other schools, they might not have the same staff.”

Progress could depend on students’ needs. In particular, some students with autism have thrived at home, while others struggle without routine and recede socially.

“I think we’ll see a wide range of outcomes for kids who are returning back to school,” said Arianna Esposito, the director of Lifespan Services and Supports at Autism Speaks, a national advocacy group for autism research and awareness. “It won’t be a total loss, because what’s being learned right now are things like adapting to very uncertain times.”

But while teachers and parents try to adapt, channeling effective online learning techniques remains an experiment.

“All of those things come from best practices,” Esposito said. “When you’re in a situation like the one we’re in, where there are some best practices, but not nearly the depth and breadth of evidence-based approaches, it’s difficult to know.”

Teachers around the state feel the strain, too. In classrooms, individualized education programs, known as IEPs, require teachers to provide differentiated learning for each student in special education. Many teachers have tried to continue these plans remotely through video and reading assignments as well as calls, but cannot recreate all of the tactile learning and emotional and social collaboration a classroom fosters.

“I think it’s definitely more of a challenge for a special education teacher to teach online than for a general education,” said Therese Squicciarini, who teaches seventh graders with language and learning disabilities at J.P. Case Middle School in Flemington. “All the differentiation that we do every day with our students, that is sometimes hard to translate in an online version of school.”

So she gets on a Zoom call with students each morning, checking in to see how they’re handling the crisis and answering questions. When she gave a recent reading assignment, she provided an audio recording, but also read the book herself over Zoom to a student who needed extra help.

One student, she said, has a single parent who must still leave the house to work. So she tends to talk with him on Zoom for longer periods, knowing he’s alone in the house during the day.

“In regard to special education students, we’re hoping to keep them growing and learning,” she said. “Always, our concern is regression.”

© 2020 NJ Advance Media Group
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC