Learning through the COVID-19 era has been challenging for most students, but particularly for students in special education programs.
Anthony Penna, a junior at Greater Johnstown High School, said he’s glad to be back in the classroom five days a week.
“I’m happy to be here. I like being with my friends more and being here in person,”
Since the pandemic began, Anthony has switched between in person, hybrid, and online learning.
“It was different, because it was just talking to a screen,” he continued.
Diagnosed with autism at three years old, Anthony is high-functioning and thrives on routine.
That’s the main disruption his mom, Danielle Penna, said the pandemic has caused students with special needs.
“He likes to do things Monday through Friday and certain things on certain days. When you take that away, it’s hard for them to adjust, and even hard for them to understand,” she told 6 News.
Anthony also missed out on musical, bocce ball, eSports, game club, and extracurricular activities, which Danielle said is needed to keep his social skills up.
“To get up and go to the living room or the dining room for school is not normal for him. He likes coming here,” she said.
Resuming those activities was one of the main draws for Anthony to go back to school.
“He was ecstatic when it was back to regular this year. He’s like, I’ll wear a mask, I’ll do whatever I need to do, as long as we can be there,” Danielle said.
But it’s the consistent relationship with his teachers that’s been the hardest to miss.
Mrs. Buzzard, Special Education Teacher at Greater Johnstown High School, said she has missed her students in return.
“Anthony is an absolute joy to have,” she said.
“I have them for three, sometimes four years in a row, five or six periods a day. We really develop a relationship. We’re like a little family here.”
That’s for students in special education across the country.
In 2019 to 2020, the number of students (ages 3–21) who received special education services was 7.3 million, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
That’s 14 percent of all public school students.
“A lot of students with special needs need a lot of hands on. Being back in person has really benefitted these hands-on experiences that these kids get,” Mrs. Buzzard said.
Now, instead of looking at the living room wall, the students are back to looking at a chalkboard with their friends by their side.
“I’ve seen a lot of kids really put forth more of an effort this year than they have in past years. I think that they’re all just excited to be back in person and with each other,” she said.
Making community appreciation for special education teachers greater than ever before.
“They just love these kids. A lot of people thought teachers got a break during this time, I feel like they worked ten times harder. I just appreciate all they do for these guys,”