For Elijah Buroker, a soon-to-be 5-year-old from Janesville, the closure of schools in spring proved to be a major setback.
Elijah has autism and doesn’t talk. He also struggles with two rare congenital disorders and vision problems because his left optic nerve never fully formed.
His mother, Renae Bliss, said Elijah was making good progress in the Janesville School District’s early childhood program at Jefferson Elementary School. Then the pandemic forced the city’s schools to close.
Bliss called what happened next a “serious six months of regression.”
“The frustrating part was because he was getting a full year last year of his speech, occupational, physical and vision therapy, he was starting to make a lot of progress,” she said. “He was starting to sign; his confidence and his willingness to kind of mix and mingle and play with other kids was increasing.
“Then when spring hit and everything closed down, he was left with nothing.”
Bliss said her son was not given any educational materials to continue learning, and she felt as if special-needs students had been forgotten. She tuned in to the children’s TV show “Blue’s Clues” and tried to teach Elijah using the methods she knew, but she said it was difficult because she isn’t a trained teacher.
Her oldest son, Jalen, also needs additional help. He struggles with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism.
Until a week ago, Jalen was going to Craig High School. He now attends Rock River Charter School, a Janesville charter school, because it has a more consistent schedule and continues to offer in-person learning.
Jalen completes online lessons with in-person help from teachers at the school.
Kim Peerenboom, the district’s director of pupil services, told The Gazette earlier this month that the district has made changes to special education this year for the roughly 1,200 students in the program.
“We have had to make some programming changes for students who are medically fragile and/or if they are living with a family member who was medically fragile to ensure that their education continues,” she said.
“Obviously face-to-face cannot be replicated through a distance-learning model, so the level of service sometimes looks a little different, especially depending on the severity of the needs of the student, but we’ve been handling all of those on an individual basis.”
To teach special-education students about masks and social distancing, teachers use reminders, nonverbal queues and stories to help children understand the new rules under COVID-19, Peerenboom said.
No special-education student has been punished for not wearing a mask. Some students are choosing face shields as a more comfortable option.
Peerenboom said a reduction in face-to-face services has been the top concern for parents of students with special needs. She said district officials have worked with families on ways that students can still come to school buildings and get help if distance learning is not an option.
Bliss spoke about her concerns at the Oct. 13 school board meeting. She asked that special-education students be allowed to continue reporting to school even if a building closes and that they have educational plans in place to keep them from falling behind.
“I am absolutely terrified” of another closure, she told The Gazette after the meeting.
Bliss said she has heard from Milwaukee parents that children in special education are struggling with the district’s virtual learning setup. When schools close, a lot of clinics that offer speech and occupational therapy close, too, she said.
“They can’t watch a video,” Bliss said, referring to special-needs students. “They can’t do a webinar. A lot of parents are having to work from home, but we’re not certified physical therapists, even though we’re special-needs parents.
“So I look at it not just for myself and seeing Elijah’s progress and his confidence that has grown. It’s not even so much about his progress, it’s his confidence in trying different things and wanting to interact with the other kids and things like that. That also regresses when the schools close.”
Jefferson Elementary School’s announcement that it would switch to virtual learning Oct. 21 through the end of the month exacerbated Bliss’ fears.
However, last Friday, she got word from Jefferson’s special education staff that Elijah could continue to receive therapy and learn at school even if the buildings are closed because of COVID-19 staffing problems.
Bliss felt relieved and grateful.
“He’s not potty trained or anything like that,” she said. “He’s behind on literally everything, so this year has been nice because … he’s making decent progress just six weeks into the school year.
“I was relieved because if the teachers go, he can go, but it’s also as a parent a great feeling to know that somebody heard me and my concerns and he can receive the help he needs,” Bliss said.
She also learned Elijah soon will be moved from the early childhood program to P4J, the district’s 4-year-old kindergarten program. That likely means he’ll learn in person with more children when Jefferson reopens.
Elijah is exempt from the mask mandate. He did not wear a mask in his old classroom because he and another student could socially distance themselves, and his disability makes it difficult for him to wear one anyway.
That’s not Elijah’s only difficulty amid COVID-19. For the first few weeks of school, he wouldn’t take the hand of a teacher he knows because he didn’t recognize her with her mask on.
Elijah’s teacher had started with a face shield so students could get used to seeing her before she switched to a mask, Bliss said.
Now, another new experience looms with P4J. Bliss said she is thankful her son will receive help even if Jefferson closes again.
“He wasn’t receiving the help that he needed, and now he will. One of my biggest fears would be for him to be an 8-year-old first-grader,” she said. “If he struggles, he struggles. But I didn’t want it to be because the school district wouldn’t work for him.”