Taking on Education’s Toughest Task: Remote Learning and NJ’s Special Kids

An NJ Spotlight virtual roundtable brought together educators, teachers, parents to assess lessons learned, next steps with distance learning likely for rest of school year
By now, a familiar sight: NJ Spotlight’s virtual roundtable via Zoom

As it becomes more likely that New Jersey schools will be closed for the rest of the academic year and will continue to rely on remote instruction, the biggest challenges involve special education and students with special needs.

This week, NJ Spotlight hosted a virtual roundtable on the topic, bringing together the state’s top officials overseeing special education, as well as a teacher and a family advocate.

The discussion ranged from guidance the state would be providing on how to deliver this instruction to lessons learned for educators and families. The roundtable was moderated by NJ Spotlight founding editor and education writer John Mooney. The roundtable’s complete video has been posted online.

The following are edited excerpts:

Q: From your perspective, how is the state doing so far and how are the schools doing so far in providing services to students with special needs?

Peggy McDonald, assistant commissioner, Division of Student Services, NJDOE: So we have challenges, we have things that are going on. But I will say that under Commissioner Lamont Repollet, we as a team have really been working diligently every day to do as much as we can to support educators and parents. Gov. Murphy signed into law a bill that ensures equitable instruction virtually for kids with disabilities and ensures that related services can be provided. We have teams across the department, a special education representative in every single county, taking calls, listening to parents to help meet the individual needs of each kid with an IEP (Individualized Education Program).

Are there challenges? Yes, there are challenges in special education every day. Is there more we can do? Sure. But we are really working hard.

Q: What would you say if you could name one area that has been the biggest challenge in terms of special education?

McDonald: Our commissioner is truly committed to equity. It is one of our core themes. And ensuring that every student has equitable access to these services is a challenge. School districts do things in different ways. School districts, families, have different opportunities and resources. But it’s also been an amazing adventure to see all of the groups, community groups, as well as the county offices, as well as the department staff, as well as community resources, really working together to fill those gaps so that students can have access to instruction during this time.

Q: Dr. Buxenbaum, you are now the state’s special education director, but you also are a former director of special education in Ridgewood public schools. Give me your report from the field.

Kim Buxenbaum, director of the Office of Special Education, NJDOE: Our teachers, our educators, our related service providers in general are always very excited to work with our students. They went into these fields because they have a passion for teaching, for helping students learn and grow. And so, even in a regular school day, sometimes we have to bob and weave a little bit, especially in special education. We focus all the time on trying to make sure where we’re outside of the box and not in the box. And I think that our educators are really working hard in that vein to adapt to this new virtual-instruction and remote-instruction world. And I’ve been really impressed with a lot of the creative things that are going on.

Q: Lynda Shanahan, talk a little bit about the challenges you face as a teacher. What is your typical day as a special educator?

Lynda Shanahan, special educator, Pennsauken High School, member of the NJ Special Education Advisory Council: My day always begins with trying to reach out to my students. I do that through Google Classroom, emailing. I also try to reach out to parents on a regular basis. I try to figure out ways to implement some kind of instruction, whether it’s through a video or inviting students to Zoom. So I’m trying to expand my own repertoire in order to be able to reach their needs.

So right around like two o’clock, I’ll send out a Google Meets. And for those students who aren’t able to get onto the program, I do have some students that request for individualized instruction. So I also provide that as well.

I do have a few students that I’m unable to get a hold of. So I’ll do things like sending letters, sending books. Anything I can to try to make that connection with my students.

Q: I imagine that’s a challenge. It’s not like you can go knock on their door.

Shanahan: It is a challenge. And that’s one of the challenges with the situation at hand. On one hand, we are trying our best to reach out to students, reach out to families. However, it’s not always that easy. So we are trying, but it is one of the challenges.

Q: Karen Edler, as one panelist who’s not necessarily an official educator, speak to the challenges being faced by families through all of this and some of the lessons we’ve learned so far.

Karen Edler, family advocate, Price, Meese, Shulman & D’Arminio: I think it’s certainly going a lot better now than in the beginning. The reality is that everybody was thrown in this pot together. And the challenge for parents, of course, is they became their child’s teacher, their child’s assistant, their child’s one-to-one aide, if you will.

They’re also, in most cases, also trying to do their jobs. So the stress and strain on them is tremendous.

There are some districts that are doing extremely good assistance to the parents. I’ve seen some conversations with aides and parents where they’re actually able to help with some of the behaviors of the autistic population in ways they couldn’t do when school was open, because now they’re seeing the child in the home environment and hearing what parents have been saying for years.

The flip side of that coin is a lot of issues with the delivery of counseling, speech, occupational therapy, supplemental instruction. There’s a lot of frustration, and we are trying to help our clients manage that.

There’s also been a big discussion going on because some districts sent parents a release form requiring them to sign a waiver and a release prior to getting the services. And that’s something that the parent should not be being required to sign. And so that’s been a major issue, and that’s probably the majority of the calls that we get.

Q: Dr. McDonald, we have received a lot of questions about related services, counseling and other therapies. Much of them rely on being one to one in the room and now they are being provided remotely. How effective do you feel that is?

McDonald: That has to be answered on an individual basis. But what we’re trying to do, first of all, is to ensure that IEP teams have the ability to make the determination that those services would be delivered virtually.

So the issue of how these services are provided, we’ve given some guidance, but we’re looking to work with the professional organizations. We’re looking at putting more guidance on our website from the national organizations for these service providers.

Q: Can you speak to the concern that some districts are asking their special-needs families to sign releases or waivers from filing complaints over the services provided during this time?

McDonald: We’ve had discussions with our attorneys on this. And as you know, parents can’t waive away their rights. They cannot give it to either the current services or the future services. So we are coming out with guidance for districts on that as well.

We want to hear from parents. We would like them to call the county office or call our special education ombudsman, so we can address that with the individual district to ensure that no student is denied services, present or future, based on waiving their rights.

Q: Dr. Buxenbaum, talk about some of the things that have evolved in this time. Have there been any surprises?

Buxenbaum: Being able to translate physical therapy or occupational therapy into a home setting through this virtual remote instruction is something that we’re starting to look at.

We’re (also) having conversations about some of the processes in terms of evaluations and what is happening in that process. What are some of the pieces of evaluations that can be done remotely? Are there other areas of assessment that really require in-person? So we’re working with our districts and trying to have these conversations and have them be able to have good conversations with parents at the IEP table.

We’re hoping that conversations with parents can happen in a way where everybody is understanding that we’re in a really difficult situation. So there are certain pieces that we can do through an interview, through some remote observation potentially, depending on the capacity of the parents and what they have available to them. But there are other pieces that do require in-person. And so things may need to happen once school reopens.

It may be that not all pieces of those evaluations can be done. But that doesn’t mean that there are things that the teams can’t do and the district can’t do to be able to talk to the parent and figure out what’s happening with the student and put some supports in place.

Q: How about the parents’ perspective in terms of having to be flexible around what is not the most flexible of systems?

Edler: Most parents, they’re most frustrated by the lack of ability to get evaluations and a lack right now of adherence to required timelines, especially where the evaluations were commenced before the pandemic and are now continuing or at least supposed to continue during the course of the pandemic. It’s a tough issue, but I think the parents are hoping there will be more flexibility with giving evaluations, educational or psychological testing, speech testing through the remote process.

So it’s very hard because you’re trying to plan not only for your child’s future now, but this is the time of year, we call it IEP season, where parents are planning for their child’s future for next year and being where we are now and not knowing what’s going to happen when school is going to be go back.

Q: Lynda Shanahan, you and I spoke a little bit about how this situation has opened up the communication lines between families and their teachers and vice versa. Speak a little bit to that in your personal experience.

Shanahan: One of the things is that teachers are reaching out more. One of the important issues is the fact that we are recognizing going from the traditional to a more nontraditional virtual world is that students have social needs. So it’s very important for us as educators to continue to make those connections with our students. So on a regular basis, we make sure that we’re reaching out some way, shape or form via email, telephone, Google classroom. So it seems to be a part of this time right now.

Q: Compensatory services is a big issue, what districts will be able to provide these students in terms of making up for the losses. Is there guidance yet on that?

Buxenbaum: What that compensatory education looks like is going to be very different based on the individual student, how their disabling condition impacts them in terms of their education. And where are the areas where there may have been some regression and loss. So those conversations really need to start happening.

And we’re encouraging districts to continue to collect data. Progress-monitor what you’re doing from an instructional standpoint in terms of the reading, writing and math, science, social studies instruction, in addition to the related service pieces that are happening, making sure that we’re monitoring how students are doing and making adjustments along the way.

So at the end of all this, once those schools reopen, the teams can sit down and have conversations about whether a student needs compensatory education. And if so, what does that need to look like? How long? How much, in what areas? But as you can imagine, a student that may have a specific learning disability, their need for compensatory education may be very different than some of our more intellectually disabled and medically fragile children.

Edler: This is one of the biggest topics that we’re hearing. There are some school districts which have gone to effectively what they reference as a half-day schedule. So to that extent, they’re only providing half of the occupational therapy or physical therapy, any and all of the related services in addition to their supplemental instruction.

We’ve encouraged all the parents out there to keep a log of what their child is entitled to and what their child is receiving to help down the line and determine what’s been missed and what needs to be replaced.

Q: Lynda Shanahan, do you worry about learning loss during this period of time as a teacher?

Shanahan: Absolutely. Yes, it is a concern because we always want to be able to have our students to have positive outcomes. But at the same token, too, I think right now teachers are really focusing in on not necessarily numbers or data as much as we are right now, focusing on the students as far as their social and/or emotional issues during this time.

That is something that’s extremely challenging. However, as teachers and educators, we all know that that is something that’s very important. We always strive to teach the whole child. So with this virtual situation, it does make it extremely challenging.

However, we are doing everything that we can. We as the teachers and administrators, child-study team members, we’re not only reaching out, we’re trying to have videos to try to cheer them up, let the students know that we’re thinking of them. The students miss their friends. And that’s something that’s very important to look at, that piece where they really do miss those human connections with their teachers and those that really care about them and their coaches and their counselors.

Q: Are there things that have surprised you most in this experience?

Shanahan: One of the things that has really surprised me the most has been that we have increased our camaraderie; we have increased our collaboration as professionals and also in collaboration with students and families. So that has been something that’s been a good thing that I would like to see continue to be enhanced through all of this, because we really do need each other in order to make this work.

Q: Other things our panelists want to get across to our audience?

Buxenbaum: The other thing I would say is to also make sure you’re having conversations with your kids, with your students, and that folks are checking in. If they haven’t heard from a family in a while, have the case manager call and check in for those students that we know have some other challenges with their social and emotional pieces or their mental health pieces, that we have folks in the district that are trained to be able to work and to assist the families with those pieces.

Sometimes, some of the most creative ideas of how to solve a problem come from those conversations with the parents and the educators at the table. So the more we can collaborate and try to keep in mind that we’re all trying to do the best we can.

Edler: I think this time is difficult and trying on both sides. I do believe that collaboration is the key. I know parents who feel like they just have to accept the situation and that they can’t actually ask for someone to deliver their services. I would say to all parents, reach out. If you have a problem, if you see your child struggling, if you feel services are not being appropriately delivered, tell someone, tell your case manager, tell your director of special education, reach out to your county executive if you need to, if you feel that you’re not getting a problem resolved.

The children need the education, and I think when people are reaching out, we found positive responses. Maybe we don’t always agree, but we are able to find common ground and deliver more education to the child.