BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB-TV) – As pandemic shutdowns continue and student learning has moved online, one group of students has been sitting in limbo all along, continuing to fall behind because virtual learning just isn’t cutting it.

Parents say their special needs children, most of whom haven’t had any in-person services since the middle of March, are regressing.

“He doesn’t have a lot of words yet, but he will show you his love through hugs and kisses, and he’s just so special. He loves the outdoors,” said Alexandra Certo, the Niagara County stepmother of a 3-year-old. “He’s amazing, and I’m so lucky that he’s my stepson.”

Certo says Shamus Gaffney is a fun-loving boy, and she just wants what’s best for him.

Shamus, who has an IEP, or individualized learning program, qualifies for year-round education in Wilson, but the Wayne Secord Therapeutic pre-school, where he was supposed to get services, is closed.

A smiling Shamus poses with his parents. Photo provided by Alexandra Certo.

“His school has been great with communicating with me. The district has responded to everything I can have. Everyone I’ve reached out to has been coming back to me, trying to give me information and help. It’s just nowhere to be found,” Certo said.

She’s one of countless parents say virtual therapy isn’t cutting it for children who need certain therapies or who have developmental delays or disabilities.

“We’re seeing a significant lack of services being provided to children,” said Charla Smith, who is seeing it firsthand in her classrooms. “So in the home setting, they are supposed to be doing Zoom meetings with their therapist, and that’s very challenging for a lot of children, whether it be that they don’t recognize their therapist on a video screen, or that that’s confusing, or that relationship isn’t there [through a screen.]”

Smith is the director of childcare at the Children’s Center for Success at the Family Help Center.

It’s an early childhood program providing therapy, special education, and school-aged programs. The Family Help Center helps Erie County residents connect to all types of services, including those for kids.

“What we’ve been seeing since the children have returned to program is a severe lack of social emotional skills,” Smith said. “We’re seeing some delays in the children that are coming back into congregate care due to the fact that they’ve been home for two or three months.”

Social and emotional skills are exactly what Chase, 4, was working on before the pandemic hit New York.

“The main reason he was sent to the Children’s League was because he needed the social interaction to learn how to be socially appropriate, and you can’t learn that through a screen,” said his stressed out mom, Shelby Purdy.

Purdy, like Certo, is trying everything she can to be an advocate for her young son.

Purdy says Chase has an IEP through Gowanda and was getting services through the Children’s League in Springville.

“He’s a very loving, sweet little boy, and it’s hard to see him go from where he was doing really great to back to where he was before he was getting therapy,” Purdy said.

Chase celebrates a birthday. Photo provided by Shelby Purdy.

Then, there are the even-younger children who do not have IEPs yet and who are missing a critical benefit of early education: getting identified as having a developmental delay in order for them to then benefit for early intervention.

Ashley Kowalyk, a behavior specialist & social worker at the Children’s Center for Success, says sometimes parents recognize a need in their own kids, but more often than not, it’s the childcare providers who know what to look for.

“The teachers, the schools that are identifying the children,” Kowalyk said. “So if those services aren’t being offered, or those places – the agencies or childcare centers – aren’t open, we’re not able to do assessments and evaluations on the children or even be able to contact somebody to come in. That’s where we’re seeing the disconnect.”

With evaluators and therapists working from home, nobody is coming into homes, meaning educational evaluations aren’t effectively happening right now, leaving vulnerable kids on the back burner.

“I worry a lot…I’m not trying to play the blame game. I think everyone is doing the best that they know how with the information that they have, but now it’s not just a couple of weeks of this. There has to be a long-term solution to this,” Kowalyk said.

Superintendent of Niagara Falls City School District, Mark Laurrie, says from his perspective, districts are impossibly trying to balance the safety of staff and the needs of students.

“Nothing has been more difficult than to deliver special education services and English as a second language services, to be quite honest with you, during a pandemic,” Laurrie said.

One of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive orders singled out special education as the only type of education that could do in-person instruction, but it did not go so far as to require it.

“The health risks are just still too tenuous for me to direct or order a staff member into a home, and I think sometimes our special ed students are medically fragile as well. Plus a parent has to be there,” Laurrie said.

Laurrie says there are nearly 1,500 classified special education students in his district, and about 175 of them who qualify for summer services.

“It’s gone so far as to having a conversation in our district that even if we return in a hybird model, should we return our self-contained special education students five days a week? Because of the regression in their learning, because of the need for rituals, routine, repetition, so forth,” Laurrie said.

And if the hybrid model at some point goes back to full-time classroom education, he’d also strongly consider bringing back special needs students first.

Jeff Paterson is CEO of Empower, a non-profit in Niagara County with a special education pre-school, also forced to do virtual therapy.

“We find a way to do it with the philosophy that something is better than nothing, but it’s certainly not ideal,” he said.

Paterson, a board member of the Developmental Disabilities Alliance of Western New York, also chairs its Government Affairs committee, and he’s had conversations with members of the state legislature. He said he empathizes with policymakers and feels the late spring executive order did not give enough time for schools and providers to get Person Protective Equipment (PPE) and prepare.

“I think the executive order was well intentioned, but it was a little late, and it was very vague,” Paterson said. “So as you said, it left for us providers, not-for-profit providers that contract with school districts and counties, really left the decision up to them and very little to us.”

As fall looms closer, worry grows.

“I feel like it’s going to cause him a huge setback in his future,” Certo said about young Seamus.

Paterson is eager to figure out how to bring back in-person services safely.

“Anytime we see a need going unmet, that we’re in a position to meet, it breaks our hearts, and we desperately want to be reunited with our students,” Paterson said.

Laurrie gives New York State a pass for the spring and summer because he says everyone was responding in real time.

He’s less accepting of the 145-page guidance for fall, which he feels leaves too much to interpretation.

RESOURCE: New York State’s suggested questions and answers for planning ahead when students with special needs return to school.

“When you’re talking about what snacks a bar can serve versus who can come back to school, how, and what you do – and there’s a very clear prescription about the snacks in a bar or restaurant, but there isn’t that same prescription in a school – that’s where I’m starting to lose confidence,” Laurrie said.

And parents are trying to find hope.

“At the end of the day, we feel like we’re failing our children because our hands are tied, and there’s nothing more that we can do,” Pudy said