SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ - While South Plainfield schools remain in remote learning, one group of students has returned to in-person instruction. Special education students in the district returned to class on September 2, with important safety measures in place due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The safety procedures include mandatory mask wearing for students and staff, temperature checks, and social distancing.  “In the classroom the setup is different from before since the children have to be at least 6 feet apart, there are no open spaces for circle time, play area, and sensory areas, “  said Tierra Sosa, whose daughter Aria, is in the self-contained class at Kennedy Elementary School. Michele Both, whose son Kyle, is a senior at South Plainfield High School, said that in order to keep contact to a minimum, her husband brings and picks up her son, and he enters and exits through a door that goes directly to his classroom.

Students have an early dismissal in order to have lunch at home and are kept distanced in the classroom. “Aria’s classwork and supplies are at her desk. She has a small 3 drawer cabinet that has all the supplies she will need for the day. All activities and work are done at their desk,” Sosa said.  The partitions and distancing can sometimes present a challenge for teachers who have previously planned group activities. “As a Special Education teacher, small group work is how we teach the majority of our lessons because we have so many students on different academic and grade levels. Not having the students be able to sit at group tables or within 6 feet makes it a little difficult to have small group lessons,” Alyssa Errico, special education teacher at Roosevelt Elementary School said.

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Despite all the new procedures, students and teachers are excited to back in school. “Aria is really excited about returning to school. I feel like she’s missed the routine, her teachers, and her friends,” Sosa said.  “When I was told I was going to have the opportunity to be back in person, I jumped right at it,” Errico said. “Teaching Special Education students online was very difficult, the passion I have for my career is very strong, and it was hard for me to see my students struggling and becoming frustrated when we were learning virtually.”

Some parents who had concerns about in-person learning opted to continue virtual learning for their children.  Carena Middleton, whose son Evan is in the LLD (Language and Learning Disabilities) class at Roosevelt Elementary School, decided to keep her son home due to his asthma.  “I wasn’t confident that he would keep his mask on all day, especially when other children approach him. I thought that it could put him in danger due to his medical condition,” Middleton said.  She is content with her decision and has seen him thrive in virtual education. “He works at his own pace and has less distractions from other students and his reading and math scores have both increased,” she said.

Some special education students did not adjust well to online learning, causing parents to be concerned about them falling behind.  “We felt that she had missed so much since the last time that she was in school and that she would benefit from the structure, routine, and learning environment. We worried about regression, behavioral problems, and more. There is only so much we can do as parents online and at home trying to educate our children especially a child with special needs,” Sosa said.  “We feel our children need to receive instruction in a classroom not a desk in their bedroom or living room. Yes, the teachers are doing a good job, but that in person interaction is missing. My one son is shy and does not like to ask questions on the meets. He also has ADHD so sometimes the comprehension part is hard to get virtually,” Both said.

As the district begins to unveil plans to return to in-person instruction next month, special education students have gotten a head start in adjusting to instruction during a pandemic.  Meanwhile, Errico says her students are enjoying being the only ones in the school, “when they ask why we are the only ones, I tell them it’s because we are the VIPs of the school, and I will say, it’s been fun not having to waiting to wait for the copy machine or laminator!”