By ANDREW GARDA
Montclair’s first coronavirus case was announced on March 12, 2020. To mark a year of coronavirus in the township, Montclair Local is looking to tell the stories of families and individuals adjusting to life in the pandemic. Contact reporter Andrew Garda at email@example.com.
The Smiths know their situation isn’t like everyone’s. It’s not even like that of every family with a special-needs child.
At Montclair school board meetings, at protests, in a lawsuit, in letters to newspapers, parents describe their children struggling with depression and difficulty learning after a year of remote-only education in the coronavirus pandemic. Many say it’s particularly acute for special-needs children, who often do their best in one-on-on or small-group instruction. They describe their children falling behind and becoming withdrawn.
“We’re lucky, because I went back to work full time recently,” Mr. Smith said. That’s not his real name — Montclair Local has agreed to keep the family anonymous, to protect the privacy of their child. “My wife can still help the kids all day. I don’t think it would’ve worked if that wasn’t [the case], but because we have that luck, it’s really been a great year for learning.
“I know for other parents it hasn’t been, and I’m very sympathetic to that.”
The Smiths have two children, including a daughter in the district’s Applied Behavior Analysis program. Students in that program were expected to return to in-person learning at Charles H. Bullock School in October, but teachers refused to come back, citing safety concerns. The district later pushed back its own plans to return most students to schools in November, until January — a plan further delayed in a dispute with the teachers union. Elementary school students are now expected to return for a hybrid schedule beginning April 12.
Before his return to full-time work, Mr. Smith was the one sitting in on classes. The parents have been fortunate enough to have the time and money to give their children’s education close attention, he said.
“So we have an intimate understanding of our children’s education which we never would have had in a million years, because you’re not going to go to elementary school and sit in class all day long,” he said.
Now, that’s exactly what the parents are doing: attending class right alongside their children, through remote learning.
“I understand things, so when I meet with my daughter’s teachers now I understand how I can help and be supportive, and what they’re working on and where things are going,” Mr. Smith said. “I can also make suggestions based on what I know about my daughter as to what might work better than other options.”
Montclair recently settled a lawsuit with its teachers union over members’ refusal to come to in-person classes this winter, allowing for the expected April 12 resumption of in-person elementary school classes. No dates have yet been announced for the district’s middle schools and high school, though officials say more information will be coming soon. Parents who prefer to keep their children on continued remote learning will have the option to do so.
Earlier this year, Alma Schneider, a member of the Special Education Parents Advisory Council — a volunteer group that provides support for parents and caregivers of children with special needs — told Montclair Local it is important to remember the special education community encompasses a range of children with different needs.
A child may need physical or occupational therapy that is best addressed in a school setting, and that parents may not be equipped to handle on their own, she said.
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“It is incredibly exhausting. The teachers and staff are trained to deal with this for many hours a day,” Schneider said.
But other children have been doing well in a remote setting, she said. For example, a child who has anxiety about going to school may be doing better learning at home.
Mr. Smith said appreciates the teachers, paraprofessionals and therapists his child interacts with on a daily basis, especially as he has now seen their work up close.
“It blows me away,” Mr. Smith said. “It’s just amazing how effective they have made virtual education, in my opinion.”
The Smiths also grapple with medical concerns within their immediate family. The family’s level of caution, he said, varied with coronavirus infection rates and case numbers in the community.
“Once it skyrocketed again, we stopped them and we haven’t since,” he said.
Now, the family does play dates via Zoom — “and those are surprisingly fun for my daughter, at least,” Mr. Smith said.
His daughter and a friend will “do the same art project together and then compare what it looks like. They’ll both grab dress-up clothes and dress up as princesses and look at each other’s costumes and regalia.”
They family members are trying to take some lessons away from the successes over the last year. Texting friends and family more frequently, Zoom trivia nights, virtual play dates – those are all things Mr. Smith said the family will keep up beyond the pandemic.
“I think we’ve done the best we can under the circumstances,” he said.