Kamila Vera was only 18 months old when she had a stroke that paralyzed her left arm, limited her ability to walking, and stunted her cognitive development.
Now a 14-year-old student at A. Harry Moore School in Jersey City, Kamila receives vital services, including physical and occupational therapies, as part of her education at the school for students with multiple disabilities.
But as the coronavirus pandemic keeps Kamila and her classmates at home in remote learning, the therapy and services they normally receive several times a week at school have dramatically changed. The pandemic has meant parents, like Kamila’s mother Ruth Vera, now double as physical and occupational therapists, guiding their children through specialized exercises with the help of actual therapists using video conferencing and recorded videos.
“I am afraid to do what they do because I don’t want to do something wrong and I am going to hurt my daughter,” Ruth Vera said. “Even though we know our child, the therapist knows more than us.”
Kaleena Berryman’s son, Jharid, has cerebral palsy and requires near constant care, she said.
The pandemic has made it harder for Jharid to get the same therapy he would normally receive twice a week in school, including speech, vision, physical, and occupational therapies. Berryman, who works fulltime as the director of the Abbot Leadership Institute at Rutgers University, says it’s difficult to balance her professional responsibilities with the therapy she must now arrange and administer at home.
“It is hard for me to schedule him to see therapists (virtually) twice a week, and that is for all parents,” Berryman said. “It is not that the school doesn’t want to do it because they will. They are reaching out, but when you have to work at the same time, it is hard to schedule therapy sessions in addition to school during the work week.”
Berryman also noted that in school there are aides who help students throughout the day. While more affluent families in the special needs community can afford to hire extra help, other special needs children might be left behind as their parents split have to juggle helping them and working, she said.
Some parents are quitting their jobs to help their kids, she added.
The challenges that remote learning during a pandemic pose are just some of many obstacles the school has faced in the last year. In September 2019, the roof of school’s front entrance collapsed, forcing the students and staff to move to into trailer-like facilities at the Gerald J. Dynes Regional Day School in Jersey City.
The very fate of the beloved school was also in doubt when New Jersey City University, which has run the school for decades, announced that it would sever ties with the program. The university and the Jersey City Board of Education have since reached an agreement to keep NJCU in the fold for at least four more years, but several staff members were laid off because of declining enrollment.
Once the Jersey City Public Schools allow students to return to the school buildings, it will be the first time the students of A. Harry Moore see their school in over a year.
To continue to meet the challenges of remote learning, A. Harry Moore Principal Jason Jusino said families have daily access to teachers and therapists using multiple forms of communication. Jusino, who was hired as the school’s principal last month, said he wants to make sure the school addresses any regression and prevent it by modifying students’ programs as needed.
Gerard Crisonino, director of special education at the Jersey City Public Schools, said nothing replaces in-person instruction, but the school is doing its best.
“All the instruction needs to be tailored to their individual needs consistent with their (individualized education programs), so there is not a one size fit all in special education,” Crisonino said. “That it why it is so important to be able to have the conversation, so we know how each student is doing.”
Going remote hasn’t been rough for every family at A. Harry Moore. While it hasn’t been easy, Nicole Gohde and her son Gabriel, 8, are feeling good despite the situation, especially with the staff at A. Harry Moore staying in constant contact. Gabriel has autism and dyspraxia, a developmental coordination disorder.
Gohde said she expected to see some regression in Gabriel’s speech, but he is actually speaking more with his teachers.
“He was right on top of it. He didn’t miss a beat when he was going back with [the teachers],” Gohde said.
“When you ask him about his haircut — because he needs a haircut — so they were asking about that and he was like ‘No. Nobody is cutting my hair. Don’t touch my, hair it’s beautiful.’”