Special needs advocates say it’s unfair to open summer camps but not summer school programs for children with disabilities

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ALBANY, N.Y. (NEWS10) — Frustrations are growing among parents of children with special needs as Gov. Andrew Cuomo has given approval for summer camp, but summer school programs for kids with disabilities are still ordered closed and summer schools will continue through online learning.

Tiffany Lisboa has twin sons Xavier and Gabriel. They’re both living with autism, and Gabriel has cerebral palsy. They, like many other children with special needs, have been going without therapy since March, and Lisboa said she’s seeing significant regression.

“If they don’t go back until the fall, they’re going to regress to the point where it’s going to take ten times longer for them to even try to make it up,” said Lisboa.

She said while the teachers have been doing their best through video chats, the virtual approach simply is not working.

“I have to chase them around the house to get them to focus on the camera. It’s just not the same, and it’s very impersonal,” said Lisboa. 

She said her boys desperately need to get back to in-person sessions with trained therapists.

“I have to try to do some sort of physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy. I’m not licensed. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m trying,” said Lisboa.

Liz Jones is a teacher at Kids Express and Achievements and works with Lisboa’s boys. She said it breaks her heart to hear the parents’ struggles, frustrations and concerns. She said it has  been incredibly difficult being away from her students.

Teachers and therapists have been very limited in their abilities to work with students, especially when it comes to physical therapy, but Jones said the social emotional aspect is a major component that is being lost, too. 

Now that the Governor has given the go-ahead for summer camps, both Jones and Lisboa are even more upset that summer programs for students with special needs are still expected to be done at a distance.

“So to see that we can eat outside at a restaurant, that we can go to a summer camp while I’m watching my students lose the skills that they’ve worked so hard for is just so frustrating,” said Jones. 

Jones said their class sizes are very small to begin with. There’s a maximum of eight students in Xavier and Gabriel’s class. She said while she fully understands the public health concern, there are a number of ways to safely hold these summer programs, including holding classes outside.

“Teachers are very ingenious, and service providers, we’re willing, we’ll figure stuff out if we’re allowed,” said Jones.

Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara has also voiced his discontent with the lack of support for these students. He said it’s unfair to open summer camps and not address summer programs for students with special needs.

“This is a much smaller group of kids, so it’s actually much safer than opening up the camps that he’s opened up,” said Assemblyman Santabarbara. 

Santabarbara has now written his second letter to the Governor regarding this issue in hopes that he will consider providing some flexibility for these services.

“It’s really hurtful to know that he’s not thinking about this population,” said Assemblyman Santabarbara. “We have an obligation to meet. These kids deserve an education. We need to do that to the greatest extent possible even under the circumstances.”

The Executive Director of Express Kids and Achievements, Tami Callister, released a statement that reads in part:

“We would all prefer to be in our classrooms with children.  We do not however want to forgo any child’s safety to do so.  We work with children who are often times medically fragile.  Our very foundations are built on equity and supporting the development of social emotional skills needed to be as successful as possible in school and in life in general.  We have to find ways for all children to come back safely.  We also have to find temporary ways that are contrary to our belief systems and best practice in early childhood.  I do find comfort in knowing that the best  and the brightest in the fields of early childhood and inclusive practices are also working tirelessly to help us all get to where we need to be. 

We just purchased new sensory tables for every classroom with individual buckets in them for children so that they can come back to sensory play which is so important for healthy brain development and learning.  We have ordered the no-touch thermometers needed to check temperatures prior to staff and children entering a building, we are installing hand-washing sinks, and trying to develop our entry and exit policies and procedures.  We are ordering PPE for staff, clear shields for those directly communicating with children so they can see our faces, and are installing additional fencing to create additional outdoor space that is safe.  Those are just a few of the dozens and dozens of things that we must consider as we are trying to do it right so that the children can return. We have to patiently, in a time when patience is often times exhausted, follow guidance presented to us by the CDC, the Department of Health, and everyone else who has the knowledge and authority to support us in bringing our children and staff back to us safely.  We have to trust the experts in a time that has no precedent to compare to.”

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