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Special education teachers among those getting first priority in school districts for COVID-19 shots

Three families of students share their stories as special education teachers are scheduled to be prioritized for the first round of Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Meet 10-year-old Mason, 10-year-old Grace, and 7-year-old Caroline.

They are three children from three different families who have faced a lot of changes, especially when it comes to school. All three rely on special education teachers, counselors, and specialists who are trained specifically to respond to their needs. But, none of their families could have imagined a pandemic would flip their typical school days upside down.

"A good quote was, people say we're all in this together and we're all in the same boat. But, the reality is we're all in the same ocean and in different boats," said Grace's father, Carl Jackson. 

The families learned last week that teachers across Pennsylvania would be prioritized for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. But, with limited doses to go around districts must further prioritize their staff. The state provided guidance to put teachers for pre-K, English learners, and special education in the front of the line. 

The three families who spoke to FOX43 expressed appreciation that special education teachers would be prioritized, recognizing the help it could bring to families like theirs. Still, they noted everyone has a choice on whether to get the shot.

Meet Grace

10-year-old Grace Jackson is a 4th grader at Elmwood Academy who loves barbies, ballet, baseball, and cheerleading. However, her main concentration is learning sign language as her parents are also taking classes to better communicate.

When the pandemic forced a shutdown in March of 2020, she transitioned into cyberlearning. But upon starting 4th grade in the fall, she was able to switch to in-person learning four out of five days a week.

"She is in a deaf and hard of hearing class," said her mom Suzanne Jackson, who noted that due to Grace's communication needs in-person learning was working better than cyber classes. 

Her parents added it can become hard for Grace to log onto cyber calls by herself and, when remote, someone needs to be with her throughout much of the day. 

"Children like our daughter definitely need to be in person. Remote did not work at all," said Grace's father Carl.

Suzanne Jackson writing FOX43 that "special education teachers are so valuable because they have the ability to teach students that are not able to learn in a typical regular ed classroom. These teachers are going above and beyond right now helping in ways that have never been used before even teaching parents. Finding ways to connect and teach in unusual ways! We're so extremely grateful!"

Grace noted she enjoys school, telling FOX43 her favorite parts are reading and recess. 

Meet Mason

10-year-old Mason is a 4th grader who lives with down syndrome and a hearing difference. His mother tells FOX43, he also lives with an immune system that has forced him to continue virtual learning since March of 2020.   

"I’m grateful that vaccines are rolling out and that the people who want to get them can get them now," said Lori Neely Mitchell, mother of Mason, although she noted realistically Mason may have to wait until this time next year to return to school in person.

"We have not been in person since last March, which is definitely a struggle. I think his whole educational team would agree with that," she said, although she noted Mason's school has done everything they can. This year, he is in a remote learning group with around 5 other children.

Mitchell said "in a typical year, Mason would be learning alongside his typical 4th-grade peers, in his neighborhood school, with kids down the street. He’d be learning typical 4th-grade boy language and what dances, books, words, TV shows and movies are 4th-grade cool from those classmates. He would have a 1:1 paraprofessional aide to help him stay on task and complete tasks, modify classwork, and assist with personal care... in a general education classroom with 20+ kids, with pullouts to learning support for math and reading."

Mitchell has set up a home classroom to ease Mason's transition to remote learning. She noted that she hopes Mason will not have to do remote learning for another year, calling the opportunity for Mason to have interaction with other children 'huge.' 

"Schools often talk about the summer slide-When kids lose some of what they learned. They are now also talking about the Covid slide and providing Covid compensatory services to help kiddos re-acquire skills lost during the pandemic," Mitchell said. "It’s definitely a tricky time for nearly everyone. There is hope on the horizon that we’ll be able to get back to the in-person learning that helps Mason learn and thrive."

Mason’s 'home' school is North Side Elementary in Central Dauphin. His main remote teachers are from Paxtonia Elementary.

Meet Caroline

7-year-old Caroline is living with epilepsy and has been learning remotely since March of 2020 at Paxtonia Elementary School. She began kindergarten in the fall. 

"For us you know COVID wasn't just about social distancing from friends and family. We were distancing ourselves from Caroline's lifeline to everything: her doctors, her therapists, her teachers," said Caroline's mother Kimberly Ramberger of how the COVID-19 pandemic affected her family.

"Through last year our daughter's epilepsy has actually gotten a lot worse. We are actually undergoing right now new treatment strategies. She actually had surgery recently...." said Ramberger who added Caroline has minimal communication skills and school has previously assisted her with other behaviors. 

The news that special education teachers would be among the first prioritized in districts for the Johnson & Johnson shot made Ramberger 'super excited.'

"Knowing that her environment is safer by having adults vaccinated who are in that environment makes me feel a lot better," she said.