State BOE to Consider Emergency Special-Ed Changes at 1st Skype Meeting

In first meeting since public-health emergency was declared, state board weighs whether to deliver school services to special-needs students via phone, teleconference

The State Board of Education on Wednesday — in its first monthly meeting ever to be held on Skype — will waste little time in taking up some tough conditions facing New Jersey’s schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It will be the first meeting of the board since the statewide emergency was announced, and a host of issues confront the state’s 2,500 schools and their 1.4 million students as they face what look to be extended closures through the spring.

First on the list will be proposed emergency changes in administrative code involving special education, as the Murphy administration looks to give districts more flexibility on that front.

Changes in a number of other areas are also likely to come in the next couple of months, from teacher evaluation to student assessment.

The board will open its public session by Skype on Wednesday at 10 a.m. The public (and press) can listen in by calling 908-409-1022, conference ID: 613516317#.

Not a run-of-the-mill meeting

At first glance, the board’s posted agenda looks like any of its monthly meetings, including a presentation on vocational education and reports on school certifications and department appointments.

But this meeting will be anything but routine, with top state officials and each of the board’s 13 members — along with the public, presumably — calling in over Skype. This is the first time officials could recall there not being a physical location for the public to attend.

And not all matters on the agenda are routine, either. The proposed special education “rules modification” is a significant one, giving guidance and relief to districts struggling during the crisis to provide remote instruction to its neediest students with disabilities.

With students all at home, the proposed change would waive the state’s requirement that services for special-needs students — such as specialized instruction or speech or other therapies — be provided in person. Instead, they could be provided via phone or teleconference during “extended public health emergencies.”

“Currently, Department regulations do not permit school districts or other educational agencies to deliver related services to students with disabilities through the use of electronic communications, virtual, remote or other online platforms,” reads the code proposal posted by the state yesterday.

“Without this increased flexibility, students with disabilities will not receive the special education and related services they are entitled to as determined by each student’s individualized education program (IEP).”

But the issue is hardly undisputed. The experiences of students with disabilities are among the biggest uncertainties facing schools during the emergency. Advocates have already raised worries that schools may not meet their obligations to these students, leading to significant setbacks and loss of learning.

Special task force convened

A coalition of nearly a dozen groups last week called for a special task force to be convened to monitor and ensure all students — with or without disabilities — suffer the least harm in their education during the crisis.

Yesterday, one of the leaders of that coalition said it supported the emergency changes, but wanted to be sure that it does not absolve districts from providing the necessary services, in whatever form.

“We support the adoption of this emergency regulation and believe that it provides important clarification which will result in an increase in services to students,” said Elizabeth Athos, senior attorney with the Education Law Center, a member of the coalition.

“However, we would like the State to make one further clarification:  notifying districts that the emergency regulation should not be interpreted as eliminating the need for compensatory services for any student with disabilities whose needs cannot be met by remote instruction.”

The ELC with the other groups in the coalition released a formal letter sent to the state yesterday asking it to provide more detailed guidance to districts. The letter included allegations that some districts had sought to waive their full responsibilities under the new circumstances.

“For the same reasons that we would never allow school districts and charter schools to seek a broad waiver of rights before serving students within school buildings, they must be prohibited from doing so when serving students remotely,” the letter read.