First Day of School Taylor

Students arrive by bus to the Taylor Elementary School on the first day of classes last September. (File photo)

Students with special needs, considered especially vulnerable to learning disruptions stemming from the coronavirus pandemic, have instead flourished during a disjointed school year in ways never anticipated from more conventional learning environments.

That was just one of several “silver linings” related by special education faculty during an extensive progress report delivered to the school committee Tuesday night.

Cory Mikolazyk, director of student services for Foxboro schools, told board members that students with disabilities, far from losing traction over the past year, have instead exhibited remarkable resilience and continued growth in the face of COVID-related restrictions.

This was due primarily to the creative flexibility of special educators and support staff, he added.

“The biggest piece of our success is keeping the communication lines open,” Mikolazyk observed. “Our students are still making progress. Our students are making really good progress.”

Echoed by a half-dozen special educators who participated virtually on Tuesday night, Mikolazyk’s comments summarized a series of accomplishments during a 12-month period when classroom norms were frequently upended.

“This has probably been the hardest year for public education,” he said. “But when it comes to students with disabilities it’s been to the extreme level.”

Rose Ferraro, special education teacher at the Taylor School, said the growth exhibited by elementary students with disabilities was encouraging in light of logistical challenges posed by the district’s morning/afternoon schedule.

“Despite the crazy year, we’ve been pleasantly surprised to see the majority of our students are continuing to make progress,” Ferraro said.

While some students with special needs qualified for full-day, five-day-a-week instruction, support services also had to be provided to those whose families chose fully remote learning as well as those on a part-time hybrid schedule.

Other challenges also delivered unexpected benefits.

For example, Ferraro said, web-based meetings with parents prompted by restrictions on in-person gatherings helped busy staffers cope with hectic schedules and also proved more convenient for parents.

“We were able to do it and it’s worked out really well for all of those students as well as the service providers,” Ferraro said. “It’s been a challenging year but we’ve learned a lot.”

Pamela Bartolini, speech and language pathologist at Igo School, said faculty members had to think outside the box when preparing for the start of school last September. Even so, she said, there was a learning curve for both students and staff.

“It was really scary going into this year,” Bartolini recalled. “But it’s been amazing to see what we have been able to do as staff, and even more so how resilient our students are and how much we were able to learn from them.”

“Even though it was a crazy, crazy year…it really just has been a great opportunity to build community within our program,” added Colleen McCune, also a special educator at the Igo School.

Preschool SPED coordinator Dianna Parr said that enforcing health and safety protocols with the program’s youngest students required both patience and perseverance.

“Trying to keep masks on 3-year-olds, 4-years-olds and 5-year-olds was quite a challenge,” Parr recalled. “The great news about it is that we did it. Kids learned how to be socially distant. The kids learned to wear their masks.”

Parr also voiced pride at the teamwork within the special needs community, particularly early on when information about pandemic risks was often lacking.

“Nobody had been through this before,” she recalled. “Nobody knew what we’re doing or how to do it. It was an amazing time of learning for everybody.”

According to Ahern School special education teacher Melissa Felper, middle school students were only scheduled for in-person learning twice weekly but could log in remotely to obtain supports they normally would receive in the classroom. This fostered a sense of independence among students with disabilities and enhanced proficiency in a variety of skills.

“It has been a hard year and a chaotic year,” Felper said. “But I think there really is a lot that’s come out of it for us as special educators.”

High school department chairperson Pamela Anderson said students enrolled in the PAVE vocational program, ranging in age from 18-22, have become indispensable in a variety of community service placements — helping pack box lunches at the Ahern School or working at local businesses.

“The beauty of it is we’ve really been able to work with students and remind them how much they can help their community by just doing these small acts,” Anderson said. “They’re very proud of themselves for being able to do that.”

Noting that student needs are always evolving when it comes to special education, Mikolazyk said Foxboro was committed to bringing in the most significant or complex needs five days a week right from the first day of school in September — among a limited number of school districts to do so.

“It’s extremely difficult to deliver special education in a hybrid model,” he observed, adding that teachers worked overtime to develop student learning plans based on a range of circumstances and schedules. This included hosting a series of family forums, beginning last September and continuing throughout the school year.

School committee Chairman Richard Pearson thanked educators for their enthusiasm and focus.

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