Students with special needs navigate the COVID-19 classroom


ROANOKE, Va. (WFXR) — As schools gear up to get back in session in accordance with COVID-19 safety guidelines, Centra’s Rivermont School for special education reopened its doors Monday.

Operating at 50-percent capacity and implementing measures for faculty and student safety, Rivermont Autism Program’s principal, Brian Summo, says it was important this private, year-round school reopened so its students could continue their progress.

“We have half of our school divisions coming in on Monday and Tuesday and the other half are coming in on Thursday and Friday,” Summo said. “We hope to be able to offer longer periods of time that the students are in school, but for now we’re just going to keep doing what we’re doing and see how it goes.”

In addition to the academic curriculum, students with special learning abilities experience their school day on a strict schedule, with time allotted for lessons in social skills, speech, behavior management, to name a few, helping them learn to navigate and adapt to the world.

Summo says the school plans to integrate frequent hand washing and sanitation measures into this daily routine. Although many are wearing them, masks are not required for students.

“Some of our students who really don’t know what’s going on,” Summo explained. “We’re just going to have a routine where they go and wash their hands regularly.”

Although some students have returned to Rivermont for in-person instruction, many students — especially those with additional medical conditions besides autism — have opted to keep learning remotely. However, some parents of students with special needs feel going back to school is their child’s best option.

Roanoke stay-at-home mother of four, Theresa Cox, says without the needed teaching resources at home, returning to the classroom will be the best option for her two sons with autism.

“The school provides OT, speech, and such,” Cox said. “They miss out on those, and they desperately need those services in order to be able to do things in the future. They need the social interaction, especially the four-year-old. It’s very important to all their progress in the future.”

Cox’s sons, 6-year-old Kirby and 4-year-old Tigan, along with her oldest daughter, 8-year-old Piper, attend Roanoke County public schools. Even though she supports her children returning to school, Cox is concerned about how her sons will function in the COVID-19 classroom environment.

“The oldest one I think understands it. I’m not sure if they’re going to be able to follow through with it, and the youngest doesn’t understand it at all,” Cox explained.

Schools will look and function very differently this fall, but oldest sister Piper says online learning was hard. She’s ready to meet her new teacher and see her friends, even if it will be hard not to hug them.

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