When Lew Branin tells his 18-year-old son Christopher the school bus is coming in the morning, the special education student at Mainland Regional High School jumps up and down because he’s so excited.

“He doesn’t communicate well,” Lew Branin said. “But I can tell from his body language and his behavior and his reactions that school is necessary for him.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced schools across South Jersey to offer virtual learning from home or a hybrid of virtual and in-person teaching, a difficult transition for both students and teachers, particularly for special education students and their teachers, who rely on the personal contact to connect and support their students.

“Remote learning has its place, but not for these kids, not for special needs kids,” said Branin, of Linwood. “(Christopher) needs the environment where his peers and his friends can be there for him and with specially trained aides and instructors that know how he learns academically.”

Jillian Limone couldn’t agree more. The 32-year-old is a special education teacher at Upper Township Middle School, and while she understands why parents are keeping their children home to keep them safe, her biggest frustration is not being able to teach her students in person.

“They need that personal connection,” said the Somers Point resident, who has been a teacher for just more than nine years. “Talking on Zoom is not nearly the same as talking in a classroom.”
Limone’s classroom is set up so that she will have to teach a certain number of students who come to school each day, and at the same time and in the same classroom, teach stay-at-home children via Zoom. Limone said she’s been able to juggle both thanks to a co-teaching setup at the middle school with fellow teacher Jill Thompson.

But the technology has its limitations.

“The hardest thing is when Zoom doesn’t work,” she said. “The kids will say, ‘I don’t understand. I can’t hear you.’ I just wish they were physically in the classroom. If they were in the classroom, I’d have control over everything.”

Besides the technological limitations of virtual learning, Limone said it’s much harder to assess what her students are learning when they aren’t in the classroom, and if they are learning what she’s trying to teach.
“If Zoom doesn’t work, you can’t have any kind of physical conversation. I can’t be sitting in their house looking at what they are reading,” she said. “I feel like the kids just feel alone. I just feel like sometimes I’m not helping them at all.”
Mainland Regional heard a lot of those similar frustrations from parents in the spring when all in-person education shut down due to the pandemic. When Christopher Branin wasn’t able to go to school, his father saw dramatic changes to his behavior.
Christopher has been diagnosed on the very low end of the autism spectrum, his father said, and has difficulty communicating. Christopher only talks in one- or two-word sentences and only with people that he knows well. He can’t do anything without being supervised, Lew Branin said.

But he loves school.

“He loves learning. He loves showing off his math skills,” Lew said. “He loves the structure that he gets in school and being with his other friends.”

Without that structure in the spring, Christopher began to regress. Not just with learning, but with his behavior. His father said he would go into “meltdown” more often where his body would spasm and he would get loud and annoyed more easily.

Branin expressed his concerns to school administration, said Jo-Anne Goldberg, Mainland’s director of special education.

After having discussions with other parents and a doing a lot of research into the safety and education requirements established by the state, Mainland became one of only two schools in Atlantic County to offer an in-person extended school year program to special education students this past summer.

Goldberg said it was a huge success that brought some structure back to the students’ lives.

“These students don’t often know how to use their words to express how they are feeling, so it’s expressed in other ways,” Goldberg said. “That’s very, very difficult for parents to manage. So once you are able to get the students back into a structure, back into a routine, you see those behaviors tend to deescalate.“Those students would have significantly regressed without an extended school-year program.”

The ESY program also prepared the special education students for the fall when all students started to go back to in-person instruction.

“The students really missed their friends. (When the pandemic hit) a typically developed teen could call their friends, or go on Facebook. But it’s not as easy for (special education students),” she said. “They came back to the school, they were so happy and so excited to see their friends and be with them.”

Limone hopes more of her students would choose to come to school. She simply misses them.

“Seeing them over the computer is not really the same as seeing them in person. I have such a connection with my kids. They are like my family,” she said. “I think that’s the worst part. Just as you miss your family members (during the pandemic), you miss your students the same way.”

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