LINWOOD — While school districts are still working diligently to come up with a workable plan to educate students in September while keeping them along with staff safe, Mainland Regional High School is winding down after a month-long extended school year program for 20 special education students.

According to Jo-Ann Goldberg, supervisor of the high school’s special education department, the ESY program was offered to students with greater needs who benefit more from in-person instruction, adding that for students with disabilities, remote learning is not the best situation. “We are working to recover any COVID slide these students may have experienced since they were last in the classroom,” Goldberg said.

“The ESY program is a team effort, and thanks to the partnership between our parents, our school nurse, our teachers and our teaching assistants it is working well, and we are giving the students the opportunity to be with their friends, in a socially distant manner while learning,” said Goldberg. “These are not kids who can text a classmate or who hang out online and connect with friends, so for some of these students they have been rather isolated since in-person classes ended in March.”

MRHS and Margate were the only two school districts in Atlantic County to offer an extended school year program to special ed kids and brought them back onto campus once Gov. Murphy gave approval for in-person summer programs after July 6. The MRHS program began July 8 and runs till July 31

When Gov. Phil Murphy gave the green light for in-person, socially distant education, the effort at MRHS to bring a small group of special education students in went into high gear. Goldberg said the start of the ESY only began after much collaboration with the state and the summer learning resource guide, and suggestions and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on youth and summer camps as well as staff, administration and the parents of the special education students.

“We held virtual meetings with teachers, administrators, the school nurse and parents to clarify procedures, policies and expectations,” Goldberg said. “This could only work if everyone is onboard.”

Parents completed a screening for their students prior to the start of the program verifying the student had not been exposed to someone who tested positive for the coronavirus in the last 14 days or had a positive test themselves and had not traveled to a hot spot or had close contact with anyone who had.

The group of 20 students is divided into four cohorts with five students in each. Students are there from 8 a.m. to noon. Prior to the student being able to attend class there is daily screening and temperatures are taken before they enter the building. There is a staggered start time, so no students are standing together prior to entering the building,  and classes are confined to the C wing of the MRHS campus. The teachers switch for different subjects while the students stay in their classroom. The only time a student leaves is for one on one working with a speech therapist.

The ESY staff includes four teachers, eight paraprofessionals, including one-on-one aides, a speech therapist who works once a week and the school nurse. Face masks are required and those students who have a problem with the mask are required to wear a shield and Goldberg said it is working well. The districts custodial staff is working to keep classrooms clean, doing a thorough cleaning of the rooms each day and cleaning common areas like the bathroom several times a day.

Once the hurdles of getting the students screened and in their classroom have been managed, Goldberg said, real progress is being made. All of the teachers weighed in on the ESY program.

English teacher David Kallen said, “I think Mainland has done a wonderful job in the face of virtual learning, but nothing can replace teaching in person, especially with our extended school year group of students."

Social emotional learning teacher Kristen Bianco admited there has been a few kinks to work out but said, "The new classroom environment is certainly an adjustment, but everyone is working collaboratively to ensure its success. It is a positive experience for students and teachers to see each other in person even with wearing masks and adhering to social distancing practices."

Andre Clements is teaching math for the ESY program and said, "ESY has given the students and staff a positive and safe return amongst all the challenges we are facing during these trying times. Everyone looks forward to a safe and fun-filled learning experience daily."

Physical education and health teacher Edward Rubbert said the ESY program has been a good thing for the special education students, adding, "The students are so excited to be back and are cooperative with wearing their masks and keeping social distancing, which makes it easier for teachers with daily instruction. The students really needed this program to reconnect with friends and staff."

Parents have shared their feedback on the ESY program with Goldberg. One said she was apprehensive about her grandchildren attending the program but is very glad they attended.

Another parent, Kristen Mittleman, said in her feedback on the ESY program, “When we first heard of the possibility that Mainland Regional High School’s Extended School Year Program for special needs students would be held face-to-face, we were ecstatic. What many people may not know about special needs children and young adults from a parent’s view is that virtual learning has been extremely challenging since the coronavirus pandemic hit. The challenges were the huge disruptions in the routines, lack of much-needed social interaction, including the inability to sit through online classrooms, which has caused great frustrations and meltdowns, particularly for those on the autism spectrum. Face-to-face is crucial for the social, mental health and well-being of special needs students. In addition, therapies such as speech therapy, applied behavioral analysis therapy and other modalities are very difficult to provide virtually and are crucial to the development for those that need these services. As reported from our local support groups, many parents have noticed that their children have regressed since the start of the pandemic due to a lack of these services. When Mainland finally got the go ahead to provide a face-to-face program it was like an answer to our prayers. My son, Kevin, is a very social, young adult, likes being out in the community and misses school terribly. When I told Kevin, he would be going back, he had a huge smile from ear to ear! His reaction was priceless! It really made his summer.”

This week will close out the ESY program for the special education students enrolled. Goldberg said the students have been journaling their personal feelings and experiences over the course of the program. Teachers have been working with the students in creating a COVID-19 summer ESY Memory Book. “It has been uplifting to see how happy the students are coming into the building again,” Goldberg said.

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