By Emily Drooby
Teaching and learning during the pandemic has been an uphill battle. While it’s been hard for all kids, it’s proven to be especially difficult for special education students.
“It was definitely different,” Kerri Okula told Currents News. “We had to think of new and inventive ways of getting the students engaged, and actually online.”
Kerri is the special education learning lab coordinator at Divine Wisdom Catholic Academy in Douglaston, Queens.
Since the pandemic hit in March, she and her team have been working on overdrive.
Their learning lab is just one of the ways the school is trying to stay ahead of the curve and on top of student needs. It’s where they can get the extra help they need during this turbulent time.
“Every day it’s a challenge, and every day brings new challenges,” explained the school’s principal, Miriam Bonici.
Across the country, parents are challenging different departments of education.
Unlike the program at Divine Wisdom Catholic Academy, parents don’t feel like the needs of their children with special needs are being met.
Lawsuits have been popping up in multiple states. Families in Hawaii, New York, Connecticut, Texas and other states are alleging mishandling of students’ special education.
In New York City, parents of eight children have filed a federal lawsuit claiming the Department of Education (DOE) has failed to fulfill their children IEPs, a map that lays out a child’s special education programming. These families say they were denied therapists, translators and technology. They believe their child’s progress has halted or in some cases regressed.
A recently released report from the NYC Education Department shows tens of thousands of students with disabilities did not get their mandated services.
Currents News did reach out to the DOE, but they did not return a request for comment.
On the other hand, in Douglaston, Kerri and her team provide services for about 60 kids. They’re not immune to the struggles of the pandemic, and say working with students and coordinating schedules were very difficult at first.
But for Kerri this isn’t just a job, it’s a calling.
“I was a one-on-one aide with a student that was non-verbal and has autism. So, it was a very close relationship and from September to June, just seeing his interactions and him grow as a student, it was great,” Kerri explained.
Kerri says their goal at this time was to have good communication and be very accessible to their students.
“If we are not seeing them, we are going to regress, we are going to see major deficits so the students as we continue to see them, their strengths are improving and their skills are improving,” she explained, adding that good communication and being easily accessible to students has been a godsend to them.
Miriam calls their level of commitment remarkable.
“They make the time, whether it’s during the school day or after school to make sure they are meeting with all of their students and that the students are getting whatever services they need in order to be successful,’ she noted.