Students With Disabilities Embrace The New Normal

How two schools are handling the new routine

Almost every child is going through adjustment periods as a result of the pandemic. However, children with disabilities are experiencing a unique set of adjustments for the new school year.

Henry Viscardi School and Vincent Smith School are educational institutions on Long Island for those with disabilities. Both are making sure that every child in their school is comfortable and safe, during these unprecedented times.

Henry Viscardi School—located in Albertson—is a part of The Viscardi Center. The Viscardi Center was founded in 1952 by Dr. Henry Viscardi Jr. The center is a conglomerate of nonprofit organizations that work to educate and empower those with a variety of disabilities. John D. Kemp, president and chief executive officer of The Viscardi Center said the school is set up on a strategic schedule.

“We are set up for Monday, Wednesday, Friday in person, and Tuesdays and Thursdays, all remote,” Kemp said. “About half of the students come on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and the others stay home. Teachers are working with both the in-class students and the students that are at home simultaneously. Related services, which are your O.T., P.T., speech—they are being done by our therapists with the help of parents and other family members, who are trying to work with the students directly on what their issue is that they’re trying to improve upon. That’s really a challenge unto itself.”

According to Kim Brussell, vice president of public affairs and marketing at Viscardi Center, the children who attend the Viscardi School are doing well, despite the pandemic.

“They were very happy to be back at school and to be seeing their peers,” she said. “What many people don’t realize is that many of our children—due to where they live because they come from throughout Long Island as well as the five boroughs of New York City all the way up into Westchester, Rockland County—don’t live in very accessible homes or their families do not have accessible vehicles. A lot of our children haven’t been out of their homes since the pandemic hit, so they might have been keeping in touch through social media a little bit here and there. It was really important to get our students back here in person. It’s so much more than the academics; socialization and that social emotional learning that we’re finding was equally as important.”

At Henry Viscardi School, kids have a range of disabilities, including some being in a wheelchair. The aspect of touch is something that is necessary in order for students to be able to function on a daily basis. Kemp said students at Viscardi School have a variety of needs when it comes to assisting.

“Some need assistance in GI tube feedings,” Kemp said. “They’re going to the nurses and the medical suite for a GI tube feeding. Other people need assistance with feeding in the lunch room. Others need help in toileting. There’s a lot of very intimate close contact among the pair of professionals here who are assisting our students. It is something that we are so worried about and diligent about. We have just gone to the highest level of cleanliness sanitation and making sure that that we are managing and armed to the very best of our ability because we don’t want any of our vulnerable students to come down with COVID-19.”

Vincent Smith School—located in Port Washington— serves children in first grade through 12th grade with a variety of learning differences and has been around since 1924.

“Some kids could be on the spectrum, but are very high functioning,” John Baldi, head of school at Vincent Smith School explained. “Some kids have school anxiety. Some kids are very neuro-typical, and they just benefit from a small class. A lot of kids [also] have ADHD.”

Vincent Smith School prepared students in advance of the pandemic for what to expect in the classroom. Baldi said Vincent Smith School anticipated the shutdown and planned accordingly.

“We made sure all the kids had a device,” he said. “If they didn’t have a device, we sent one home with them in preparation, just in case. We trained them here on what to do. We did test classes of what to expect when you’re at home, how to get on, how to look for the invites, how to utilize Google classroom and seesaw and zoom. We had prepped, and then when we closed, we went right into remote learning.”

Baldi said the new setup for the school year is flexible and is based off of each child’s needs.

“They’re in class and a hybrid model,” Baldi said. “Some kids are here, and some are home because some are immune-compromised and they can’t come into school. The teachers are all online. They have the kids in class at the same time as they have their class. So the child who is at home is actually part of the class. The kids that are in school have desk dividers. It’s a clear plastic barrier around all the desks, so they’re protected. They will wear masks”

The Vincent Smith School has prepared students and parents for the new school year through a multitude of processes to make sure everyone understands the new setup and is comfortable.

“I have chats with them here and there,” Baldi said. “It was very important, not only for the kids to be online and learn, but for the families, for me to understand and hope, help the families to be okay and understand their situation as well. Some of them are dealing with losing jobs, losing family members. We wanted to be their support as well.”

To learn more about Viscardi Center, visit www.viscardicenter.org. To learn more about Vincent Smith School, visit www.vincentsmithschool.org.

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