Joseph F. Berenato
Educators improve to help students
During pandemic, everyone learns
HAMMONTON—One of the greatest challenges facing the Hammonton Public Schools district since the onset of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in March of 2020 is how to ensure that those students who require additional help and extra educational tools continue to receive the measures necessary for academic success.
Board of education member John Lyons said that, like school districts across the country, Hammonton was unprepared for the challenges it faced.
“Last year, from March to June, as the pandemic began and we quickly moved to remote learning, I don’t believe—both as a board member and as a parent—the district was doing what it needed to do for special education students or regular education students. It was something we were not well-prepared for, and students suffered and staff suffered. That’s just the reality as it was last year,” Lyons said.
However, Lyons said, as the district continued to adapt to the restrictions set in place in response to the pandemic, things began to improve.
“The staff really stepped up over the summer, and really leaned into the digital experience coming into September. My belief—again, both as a board member and as a parent of a special education student—is that we, as a district, are doing the best we can given the circumstances and the scenario,” Lyons said.
Sharon DeNafo, the District Supervisor of Special Education, said that measures have been taken to help students with individualized education plans (IEPs).
“Students in self-contained programs are provided four days of in-person and one day of remote learning. Students in less-restrictive environments such as pull-out replacement programs, in-class resource programs and general education settings with support are maintaining a two-day in-person and three-day remote schedule. All related services such as speech/language services, occupational therapy, behavioral supports and counseling services are being maintained via remote and in-person models, depending on parent preference,” DeNafo said.
Lyons, who has a child in the district with an IEP, said that Hammonton was “one of the first districts in South Jersey to bring in special education students 80 percent of the week.”
“Our special education kids, at the lower grades especially, come in four days a week out of five, which is not common. I’m very proud of that fact—again, as a parent and as a board member—that makes all the difference. Special education students, more than other students, in a lot of ways, need that interaction with their teachers and need their services, whether it’s speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy and everything in-between,” Lyons said.
One parent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, noted that their child—who has an IEP—does not qualify for the four-days-per-week option, known as Cohort C.
“Self-contained is basically somebody who has more needs than my child has; there’s a scale, and he doesn’t have enough needs to get in that classroom, but he needs things. Because he’s in the middle of what your needs are, you still have needs but they’re not enough to be met,” the parent said.
The parent expressed concern that their child has additional needs that the current hybrid model is not meeting; for them, the parent said, “school is also therapy.”
“My child learns how to cope with feelings, how to work through issues, how to be in a social setting, and, when you’re on certain levels of development with an IEP, you mirror other behaviors off of other students. You see children following along, and say, ‘oh, this is what they do, I don’t want to stick out so I’m going to do this.’ The other students are teaching, as well; they’re all learning in this cohesive environment. He’s missing a lot of that, so, as a parent, I’m sitting here like, my child needs to be in school for more than just learning how to read and write. It’s also social behavior, emotional behavior, interactions, task-keeping; they’re all things that help my child, too, and any other student who needs it. Additionally, being around peers during that social time, unwinding on the playground—they’re losing all of that,” the parent said.
Lyons agreed that the students have been “suffering” since the onset of the pandemic.
“Students, across the spectrum, across the district—whether they are AP high-honors students, kids kind of in the middle of the road or kids who need more help that aren’t classified as special education kids but struggle and need help—they’re all suffering. I am not going to sit here and tell you that it’s the same, or it’s even close to the same. All these kids are suffering. They’re not forging relationships with each other and with teachers as they should. They’re missing out on a lot of opportunities. Our job is to educate students, and, since last March, our education is not what it should be in our district because of the situation that we’re in with the pandemic,” Lyons said.
However, Lyons said, the district is doing “the best that it can in a bad situation.”
“We’ve made accommodations for kids to the extent that we can, and our staff are very dedicated in doing what they can to service the students and provide them what they need ... With that said, realistically, it is extremely difficult for students with disabilities to receive their services on Zoom. Many children in that situation are not able to learn online effectively,” Lyons said.
Parent Amanda Ingemi said that her oldest daughter, who is in fourth grade and has been diagnosed with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), is one such child.
“The hardest part of this whole thing is that, if she was in school, there would be a multitude of available tools for her, considering her learning disability. She absolutely does not learn on a computer; it just doesn’t click for her. She doesn’t have the attention to sit there, and it’s just been very challenging,” Ingemi said.
Ingemi’s two daughters—her youngest is in second grade—are part of the hybrid learning model, attending school in-person two days per week. That, Ingemi said, is not enough, particularly for the eldest, who she said “is drowning.”
“She cries every single day over math. That seems to be her hardest subject. I am attempting to teach her—I went to Catholic school as a kid—and I’m attempting to teach her what I learned when I was in school, and I don’t think it’s remotely close to what she does learn when she goes in. I think it gets more confusing, because I’m not her teacher, and I don’t really know how they teach them this stuff ...Three hours crying over fourth-grade math until nine o’clock at night, every single night is not good for her, or me. If she was in the building, five—or even four—days a week, she could get the extra help there. There’s no tools for her right now ... this remote model or hybrid model is not providing her with all of the tools that she needs to succeed,” Ingemi said.
Lyons noted that “there are a lot of students who are falling through the cracks—again, through no fault of staff, but they are.”
“English as a Second Language students. Students who have a difficult home life. This is something that doesn’t get spoken about very much in the meetings,” Lyons said.
DeNafo said that steps have been taken for those students as well.
“For the ELL population and low socio-economic income students specifically but not exclusively, the case managers along with language interpreters have worked together to schedule meetings with families, make home visits and provide referrals for community services to assist with family needs beyond education ... In addition, special education teachers are available to support students receiving special education services either in-person or remotely. Case managers have been an integral part of coordinating efforts to maintain services for students with IEPs,” DeNafo said.
Dr. Michael Nolan, principal of Hammonton Middle School, said that these concerns are not limited to Hammonton.
“It’s an issue nationwide, across the board, and not just for the kids with IEPs but for the kids in general. Getting the work done, making sure they’re attending their meetings and making sure they’re attending their classes. That has been an issue across the board,” Nolan said.
Assistant Superintendent of Schools Tammy Leonard acknowledged the hardships, and said that the district is “here to support all students.”
“Each student has unique circumstances and reaching these students is a coordinated effort between teachers, support staff, counselors, Child Study Team, nurses and administrators,” Leonard said.
Of particular concern, according to Board of Education President Sam Mento III, are those students who have seen their grades fall or have seemingly disappeared.
“It was a concern of the board about the attendance, particularly in the upper grades, the high school. The board tasked the administration with coming up with a plan, and they actually set it up where any two students who had acquired two failing grades would get a house visit, a wellness visit,” Mento said.
Board member Kelli Fallon said that the board is being apprised of these efforts.
“I know that we’ve been reaching out with phone calls, home visits, doing what we can do to reach out to people who’ve been nonresponsive, if there’s kids not showing up to meets or not showing up to school. I know that the guidance department and teachers have made all efforts to make contact. We’ve been told that staff members are being contacted through the phone, or if they’re not picking up their phone than we’ve had home visits ... The guidance department is taking the running point in making contact when teachers can’t make contact with their students. The guidance department steps in. Of course, the board is 100 percent supportive of all of these efforts; the board supports all of these efforts to contact the students who have fallen off the radar,” Fallon said.
Lyons said that now is the time to “have a conversation to start incrementally bringing these kids back in.”
“I am of the belief that students should be back; that’s my position as a parent and as a board member,” Lyons said.
The parent who spoke on condition of anonymity concurred about the necessity.
“I know that I’m not the only parent of a child with special needs. It could be somebody who has a 504 plan; they might have ADD, or ADHD, or just need support overall for some reason, and they’re not getting that because they’re supposed to be in school five days a week, and two days—then three days at home—isn’t enough. My child isn’t the only one suffering ... We support our school districts. We’re all for everyone’s needs, but we also have to have a plan for the ones that want to come back,” the parent said.
One parent, Jessica Capella, started a support group on Facebook, she said, after encountering “so many parents struggling to find balance in life after quickly becoming their child’s educator when schools closed.”
“At the onset of the pandemic we all made sacrifices and now that I’m a year in and the school district still not meeting the educational needs of my two kids along with the rest of the kids and not getting any information about a plan to go back to five days,” Capella said.
Capella said that, when traditional in-person learning did not resume in September of 2020, she was forced to find a new place of employment.
“That was hard, since I was at the pinnacle of my career and had been working for the same company for ten years. It took a lot to walk away from my career, and trust me: I had exhausted all options. I remember the day I had started writing my letter of resignation, it took three days of emotional breakdowns to get it done. It’s not the first time I’ve cried over this whole situation and I try not to show my frustrations to the kids. Many tears have been shed at our dinner table which is now a classroom,” Capella said.
Besides the academic hurdles, Capella, one of the most prominent negative impacts for her children in this educational model is “the meltdowns.”
“They’re not feeling that they can get the outreach that they need from the teachers, virtually. They’re not in the classroom ... I struggle to teach my kids, because I’m not an expert educator, and I certainly was never taught common core math techniques. Some days we have to laugh, or we will cry. I know a lot of parents who have made huge sacrifices and now the long term effects are apparent with child’s reading and math levels not trending in the right direction,” Capella said.
Ingemi agreed with Capella.
“We’re seeing our kids really starting to have more trouble than just math and English. We’re seeing kids that have been locked away from other kids for months and months, and that really wears on them—especially the elementary kids, who really rely on each other in a social group setting and are really having a hard time ... The past year, I really do think that these kids have just been skating by. That’s OK, in the middle of a very serious situation—which the pandemic was—but now, it’s, OK, this might not be going away. This might be here for a long time, so what can we do to change? What can we change so that we can adapt? We can’t keep kids remote for two more years; that’s not an option,” Ingemi said.
For his part, Mento concurred regarding the benefits of in-person instruction.
“No one would argue that the best place for a child is to be in a classroom with a certified teacher ... We want everyone to know that no one more than the board of education wants to see us return to five-day-a-week, in-person schooling. With some luck—and more guidance from the state and the federal Department of Education—it’s our hope that, come springtime, or at least the last marking period, we can start to bring these kids back in, five days a week,” Mento said.
To that end, on February 26, Superintendent of Schools Robin Chieco released a statement during her weekly update on the district’s website.
“A letter was mailed home today with information related to a phasing in of in-person instruction for the remainder of the school year. In addition, a survey will be utilized to guide additional changes for this school year and summer programming. The survey will be open from March 2-7 and can be accessed on the district website. Information related to the survey is also explained in the letter. It is important that all voices are heard as we continue to move the district forward during this pandemic,” Chieco’s statement said.
Additionally, Chieco noted in her statement that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was expected to be releasing “new guidance in the coming days related to quarantine requirements and vaccinations.”
“This information will be extremely important as we move forward. The length of quarantine for close contacts has impacted the district in terms of having enough staff to properly maintain in-person classroom instruction. In addition, the COVID-19 Activity Level has remained in the ‘yellow’ level for the second week. This is a positive development and will provide on-going guidance as we try to incorporate additional instructional opportunities for our students,” the statement said.
If the downward trend continues throughout the state, Chieco said, the district remains “hopeful that the Activity Level will move towards ‘green’ with reduced restrictions for our schools.”
“We will continue to work to make improvements to our programs and will provide notifications when any changes are forthcoming,” Chieco’s statement said.
Editor’s Note: This story was produced thanks to a reporting grant facilitated by the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University and funded by New Jersey Children’s Foundation.