Meeting Remotely, State BOE OKs Remote Learning for Special-Needs Students

Changes will go into effect immediately; special-ed advocates say they’ll continue to monitor quality of education delivered to students with disabilities
Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet at Friday briefing on state response to COVID-19 outbreak

The connections may have been spotty at times, but yesterday the State Board of Education convened online to take care of business both routine and extraordinary.

It was its first meeting since schools statewide were shuttered due to the COVID-19 outbreak — and the first using Skype. Members patched in via phone or video. Another 300 people listened in, at least double the usual in-person audience.

Most of the hour-long call was board members and state officials expressing their appreciation to the state’s schools, teachers, students and families as they venture into uncharted territory.

“These last few weeks, New Jersey’s public school system has been turned upside down,” said state Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet in opening the meeting. “We’ve asked educators, we’ve asked board members, we’ve asked students to work in a virtual state for the first time, full time.”

The commissioner said so far, schools and educators have risen to the challenge. “Unprecedented times calls for acts of unprecedented leadership and humanity, and you guys have demonstrated that from the beginning,” he said.

NJ teachers: true grit

Speaking specifically to the teachers, Repollet said, “The grit you’ve shown during this time, it makes me proud.”

But beyond the accolades, the board had necessary business, led by emergency changes to accommodate the new normal of the last three weeks, especially for students with special needs.

The state’s special-education code had prohibited the use of telecommunications or other distance-learning tools to deliver instruction and other related services to the state’s 200,000 students with disabilities, from mild to severe.

But schools are now closed for at least the next several weeks, if not months, and special-needs students are among the 1.4 million children in public schools relying on distance learning for the foreseeable future.

Repollet and his staff presented to the board an emergency action that would effectively relax the prohibition on remote instruction for special-needs students during public-health emergencies such as the COVID-19 outbreak.

“The closure of schools during the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the need for the delivery of special-education instruction and related services … through alternative means,” said Peggy McDonald, the assistant commissioner whose office oversees special education.

“Without this modification, students with disabilities would not be able to receive some of the services they are entitled to,” she added.

The board didn’t give it much discussion, other than voicing agreement that the state should move quickly to guide districts with schools and students otherwise left in limbo.

“I think this is incredibly important right now so that our students, all students, are being protected and being given the best services possible,” said board president Kathy Goldenberg.

More questions than answers

What remains, though, is a host of questions facing special-education services going forward, its rules and standards hotly debated in even the best of times.

For example, one board member asked if the emergency rules would change students’ rights to additional services to make up for any loss of learning during this period. McDonald said the hope is it will allow for ongoing instruction that would minimize any losses.

Another asked about the timeline for the changes; officials said it would be immediate, effective once the action is filed. “As quickly as possible, we want this information out there … so school districts can implement these services immediately,” McDonald said.

Advocacy groups have also kept a close watch on the state’s actions, with a coalition of organizations continuing to call for a statewide task force to monitor a wide range of education-equity issues during the pandemic.

The coalition filed a letter with Repollet and Gov. Phil Murphy on Monday that supported the emergency action but also called for further protections for special-needs students.

One area of concern among many is the capacity of the state Office of Administrative Law (OAL) to continue to hear individual families’ disputes over special-education services, a system strained under normal circumstances. The division issued a letter yesterday that hearings would proceed through Skype and Zoom.

“We’re pleased to see both NJDOE and OAL taking steps to increase remote access during this period of school closure,” said Elizabeth Athos, a senior attorney with the Education Law Center and member of the coalition.

“We still see a strong need for a Coronavirus Education Task Force to address the many difficulties arising from this unprecedented situation and to determine how we will meet the needs of the students who lose the most by being out of school.”

Parents waiting to learn more

Among those listening to the meeting yesterday was Liz Barnes, a leader in the group Decoding Dyslexia NJ and parent of a child being provided additional services that were problematic under the old rules.

“I was happy that the NJ State Board of Ed called this emergency meeting to address issues and circumstances for students, teachers and professionals providing related services that are not necessarily happening with our current distance-learning situation because of existing NJ regulations in the administrative code,” she said in an email last night.

“Particularly, I was listening for what was going to help students with dyslexia and other learning disabilities and was happy that they are loosening the regulations so that those students can receive services such as speech language therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy and so forth.”

Still, she and others said more questions remain about how that will be accomplished going forward.

“Unfortunately, there was not an opportunity for a lot of details in this call/meeting,” Barnes said. “I’m looking forward to seeing the follow-up information that spells out exactly what will be possible and what school districts will need to do to make those resources available.”