By: Ana Altchek, Follow South Jersey Intern
SOUTH JERSEY – When it comes to assessing the damage of the pandemic, there’s no way to calculate the suffering of one person and compare it to someone else’s. While every age group struggled over the last two years in some capacity, the harmful long-term effects may not be distributed equally.
As humans are resilient, the majority of the population will hopefully bounce back from this two-year lull that seems to have finally passed over. For children with disabilities though, the last two years present a major gap in some of the crucial developmental stages that they needed to advance in to progress forward.
While mask-wearing wasn’t ideal for any young student, kids with speech issues, auditory processing disorder, and autism-spectrum disorders had particular difficulty with learning in school under the mask mandate. Many of these kids are still struggling now because they weren’t able to get the proper help or resources they needed over the last two years.
Maryann Janezic, a mother of four from Monmouth County, said her son with speech problems lucked out for the first year of the pandemic because school was online. Once the students went back in person though, school became particularly challenging for him.
“It’s virtually useless,” Janezic said, referring to school with masks on for her son.
Since he wasn’t able to see anyone’s mouth move, he wasn’t able to advance forward with his speech. Even though he still had a half hour of speech therapy every day, it wasn’t enough for him to see notable progress. For many children with speech issues early on, it’s crucial that they practice all the time. Even though the mask mandate has been lifted, Janezzic says her son is still probably very behind on his articulation because he hasn’t been able to advance for the last year.
Kathryn Hart, a mom and teacher from Medford Lakes with a PHd in education says that she feels traumatized by the experience she had during the pandemic with her three-year-old son, who is speech-delayed. Even though he had maskless speech therapy every two days, being in a masked environment for the rest of the school week inhibited his development and he was completely nonverbal until recently. Now that the mask mandate is lifted, he is still significantly behind his other peers and has to attend speech therapy every day and night just to have the ability to say a few words.
Gwyneth Kathleen, a mom from Cranford, has two children with disabilities. Her nine-year old son is on the Autism spectrum and had severe anxiety about wearing a mask all day because he can’t communicate without seeing faces. Kathleen says that he lost 10% of his body weight because the whole year he thought his teachers didn’t like him and he had no friends.
“He’s already behind socially because he’s so different,” Kathleen said. He needed that interaction with other kids. That’s what keeps him going.”
She said the lack of social interaction on the playground, in the hallways, and inside the classroom set him back significantly farther than he already was.
“It’s totally not the same for kids on the spectrum or kids who are medically diverse or fragile,” Kathleen said. “It’s really taken a toll on those kids.”
Kathleen recalls getting emotional when she saw her older son next to his other kids his age, because of how much he fell behind over the last two years. Additionally, her other seven-year-old son also struggles in school and was impacted during the pandemic. Kathleen said he couldn’t learn to read with the other kids his age because he wasn’t able to learn the basics of phonics with the mask on. As a working mother with two children with disabilities, Kathleen suffered tremendously during the pandemic because of the setbacks her children experienced.
Courtney Bracken, a mom from Sewell with a child who has Autism, a sensory processing disorder, and anxiety shares a similar feeling of her child being robbed of two years of development. She said that wearing the mask prohibited her son from seeing facial expressions, and thus socializing with his peers. He struggled with the loss of social activity and daily interaction that used to define his everyday experiences of going to school.
Additionally, Bracken’s son wasn’t able to get the proper aid he needed during the pandemic either. While speech therapy on zoom worked fine, he also needed occupational therapy for help with his motor skills. Unfortunately, occupational therapy on zoom was ineffective. Similarly it wasn’t as successful in person when he had to wear a mask.
Even though this period will be more challenging for students with disabilities, it’s important to keep a progressive mindset moving forward. Robin Bilazarian, a licensed counselor in South Jersey with over forty-five years of experience with children and author of Tapping the Mighty Mind: Simple Solutions for Stress, Conflict, and Pain, said that remediation is going to be necessary to get disabled children back on track. Bilazarian said that this can be done in a multitude of ways, and parents and schools should include it in everyday learning and interaction.
For example, for kids with Autism Spectrum disorders, Bilazarian said that parents or teachers can practice making faces that look angry, happy, or sad. This can be done in a group setting, where the kids can look around and learn from each other what these expressions should look like.
“For most of us that’s intuitive, but for them that’s a learning process,” Bilazarian said.
Bilizarian said this could become a part of the curriculum and be worked into circle time every day. However, it can also be brought up more casually, like if a child is misbehaving, and the teacher uses that as a teaching moment to differentiate appropriate behavior and reactions from inappropriate.
She also suggests that parents use television as a way to incorporate these types of behavioral learning and encourage social skills. In these situations, it’s vital to remind kids that television is dramatic, but it can be a good example of what emotions look like and the type of situations that elicit different kinds of reactions.
Bilazarian notes that the pressure is more on schools now than ever, to help these children move forward. Prior to COVID, school existed as a social arena for kids to show up at and learn the proper modes of behavior and interaction. Without this kind of interaction, all children were set back.
However, children with disabilities are not doomed. While there isn’t a specific time frame, Bilazarian said this can be a fast transition back to normal.
For some kids, the transition back to normalcy happened quickly, and parents have already seen results since the mandate was lifted. Nikki Stouffer, a mother of two from Medford Township, claims that both her children struggled with the mask mandate to some degree. Her 13-year-old son had an auditory processing disorder though, and was unable to learn properly.
Auditory processing disorder, also known as central auditory processing disorder, is a hearing problem that affects a particularly small percentage of about three to five percent of school-aged children. The disorder makes it difficult for kids to understand what they hear because their ears and brain don’t function in a fully synchronized manner.
Stouffer’s son wore the mask at first, but she eventually had to take him out of school and start homeschooling him because he was falling behind. Once she started teaching him herself, he was actually able to catch up and get ahead of other kids his age. Even though he had trouble staying in touch with his old friends, he was able to meet other homeschool communities Burlington and Atlantic county that allowed him to continue to get social interaction.
While some students may experience an easy transition, like Stouffer’s son, it’s important to keep in mind that it may also take some kids several months. Bilazarian reminds parents and teachers that If the problem remains unaddressed, the damage could be longer term or even permanent. With that said, there’s no time to waste and schools need to have an action plan in place sooner rather than later.
“Kids are resilient. They’re moving and switching all the time.” Bilazarian said. “So I think it’s going to depend on how much exposure they have to social cues and situations.”
In order to keep society moving forward, it’s crucial that residents continue to get vaccinated and stay up to date with the boosters. This will prevent further halts in schooling and will allow disabled children to resume back to normal through consistent conditions and a stable learning environment.
For more updates on life after the pandemic, please visit Vaccine United for the latest health and wellness news in the area.
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