EDITOR'S UPDATE: Gov. Murphy has since announced that ESY programs will be able to resume after July 6. 

LIVINGSTON, NJ — In the wake of recent announcements from Gov. Phil Murphy allowing the opening of daycare centers, summer day camps, pools and other activities throughout the state, parents of special-education students throughout the area are supporting a petition requesting that the governor also allow in-person summer programs for special needs individuals.

The petition specifically calls for the reopening of Extended Year Programs (ESY), during which special needs students maintain skills and knowledge over the summer. 

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According to some Livingston parents who have supported this endeavor, special-education students risk regressing socially and academically without these maintenance programs. Livingston mother Rimma Stavitsky, for instance, said she has seen her child regressing socially during over the last few months and feels that the benefits of opening these programs outweigh the danger of contracting the virus.

“The risk of getting COVID-19, which is very small now, is not as concerning now as regressing socially even further in the next three months,” said Stavitsky.

Other community members, including Livingston teacher Chani Levine and Livingston Adaptive Recreation Coordinator Jennifer Quirk, whose sons both attend ESY during the summer, have also recently shown support for holding onsite classes in the coming months.

Quirk specifically said she would be in favor of onsite programs as long as “the staff feels safe and confident in the arrangements made and the kids are in small groups, spread six feet apart.”

“I’m definitely in favor of in-person summer school with the proper health protocols in place,” said Livingston mom Brenda McDonnell. “Virtual learning doesn’t work for my son and many other disabled students. Their IEP (Individualized Education Program) goals are not being achieved and regression of skills will happen.”

Many special needs parents have expressed concern that virtual learning has not lent itself to special needs education, as some students depend on paraprofessionals (or teacher aides) to help them with lessons while others also need social skills training, speech therapy, occupational therapy and physical therapy. The latter two are especially difficult to accomplish effectively with the virtual model.

Parents signing the petition agree that remote learning is “failing the special needs population” because the students miss and want to be with their teachers, friends, paraprofessionals and therapists.

On the other hand, there are also some parents who agree with the failure of the virtual-learning model but are concerned about the safety of their special-needs children who may be more susceptible to COVID-19.

Among those who need to be particularly careful is Livingston resident Peggy Romano, whose son has autism spectrum disorder as well as Down syndrome.

“It’s not that we prefer remote,” she said. “It’s that it would be our only choice [medically].”

Bob Gebroe, chair of the Livingston Advisory Committee for Disabilities (LACD), also had ambivalent feelings about how to conduct ESY.

“Safety is the primary concern,” he said. “Parents need a break, but the number of students in each class would have to be small.”

In addition to compromised immunity—which is a common problem for special needs individuals of all ages—several other concerns are also being taken into account when discussing the feasibility of holding in-person programs this summer.

According to Quirk, many of the participating students would be able to handle wearing masks in the hallways and restrooms, but would likely have difficulty doing so during lessons. She also mentioned that busing could become complicated, as many of the students would find it difficult to wear a mask during a long commute.

Quirk noted that students with special needs often suffer from sensory sensitivity, meaning that wearing a face mask could be anywhere from uncomfortable to unbearable.

Parents who support in-person ESY feel that the online education is not in compliance of many of the students’ Individualized Education Programs (IEP), which is a legal document developed by the student’s case manager with input from the parents, teacher(s) and therapists.

Although remote learning has been challenging for many neuro-typical students as well, those with special needs require additional accommodations that have made the virtual-learning experience even less effective in many cases—causing many students to struggle educationally and emotionally as a result.

Similarly to parents considering sending their neuro-typical children and teens to camp this summer, the parents of ESY students are faced with the decision as to whether these programs are worth the risk of exposing their special needs children to COVID-19.

The petition reiterates, however, that the summer program is optional, leaving individual families to make their own choice. It also indicates that ESY programs typically offer “smaller class sizes where social distancing and safe practices can be followed.”

As of Thursday night, the governor has determined that daycare facilities can reopen on June 22 and day camps will be allowed to operate with restrictions beginning on July 7, but regulations for ESY programs have yet to be established.

CLICK HERE to see the petition, which currently has nearly 400 signatures.