New Milford teen with special needs returns to school for first time since pandemic hit

NEW MILFORD — Connor Dawson boarded his school bus Monday morning for the first time since the pandemic hit.

Dawson, who is 19 and a senior at New Milford High School, has Down syndrome and, due to having had medical issues when he was younger, his mother chose not to send him back to school until he was fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

It’s been a rough 14 months for Connor, his mother, Gail Dawson, said.

“We’ve had to make a lot of accommodations. It was a lot of juggling,” Gail Dawson said. “He missed school so much. He would often ask me ‘When am I going to go back?’ It’s been hard.”

Connor Dawson has been attending school in a virtual classroom where he received instruction for one hour a day — from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m.

Gail Dawson, a single mother who works as a home health aid at the Visiting Nurse Association in New Milford, has had to had to make sure someone was always available to help her son access the remote instruction.

“When we first started virtual learning, my niece came over two days a week,” the elder Dawson said. “Those were my long days.”

Other times, Connor Dawson’s sister Emily, 20, helped out.

Aside from not having in-person school, Connor Dawson has also not participated in any social activities since the pandemic.

“The bulk of what he was missing was the socialization,” said his mother, adding that her son used to enjoy participating in Unified Sports for track and soccer. “It was a bubble. Aside from taking walks with our dog, the only time he saw other people was in that one hour.”

All that changed Saturday night when Connor Dawson’s friend Christina Pascento — also a New Milford High School senior, called Dawson with a request.

“It was prom night at the high school and Connor wasn’t going to be going due to COVID. Christina reached out to us and said she wanted to know if they could get dressed up and take pictures together. This just melted my heart,” said Dawson, adding that Christina has been in Connor’s life since second grade.

“They sat together on the bus and would hang out and talk. She always protected him and stuck up for him,” Emily Dawson said. “It’s very loud on the bus and kids are rambunctious, and she made sure everything was chill for him.”

“Whenever there was name calling, Christina was always right there, sticking up for Connor,” Emily Dawson said. “Connor would always look forward to seeing Christina on the bus.”

Pascento said ever since sophomore year, she had thought about asking Connor to go to the prom with her.

“But then COVID happened,” she said. “I knew he wasn’t going to prom, but I still wanted to do something.”

She said she has always enjoyed Connor’s company.

“He’s one funny kid. He just always is so positive and makes me smile all the time. Whenever I had after a bad day, he would brighten it up. He would tell me how his day was but make it funny in some way,” she said.

On Saturday night, Christina and Connor took pictures in Christina’s backyard.

“I hadn’t seen him that excited in a long time,” Gail Dawson said.

Connor Dawson’s next milestone is the senior picnic, and then graduation. This fall, he will be attending Litchfield Hills Transition Center in New Milford to learn life skills.

“There’s so much in this past year that Connor has been through,” the elder Dawson said. “He’s now finally ready to enjoy his senior class in person for the remaining weeks of the school year.”

sfox@milfordmirror.com