This fall’s statewide return to the classroom will surely come with plenty of bumps and bruises, some of them showing already as the Murphy administration pushes schools back to so-called “normalcy” — even if it has to do so carefully.
In its first meeting of the new school year, the State Board of Education on Wednesday sought to restore some key regulations that had been put on hold during the pandemic.
The most notable was the restoration of the state’s high school graduation test for the spring, suspended twice over the last 18 months due to the COVID-19 pandemic and under challenge for many years before that.
The move was expected, as the plans had already been in the works after lengthy deliberation and a court challenge.
But while inevitable, the prospect of the new 11th grade test remained controversial — as with anything related to with state testing — especially in this period of duress. In a protracted review period that dated back to 2018, more than 2,100 individuals sent comments to the board, for and against.
In the end, the board unanimously approved the move Wednesday without further public discussion.
“We certainly have spoken about this for a long time,” said Kathy Goldenberg, the board’s president. “I want to appreciate the incredible time that the board members have given to this deliberative process for years.”in the spring for incoming juniors, as required by state statute. Students that don’t pass either section will have alternative tests to show proficiency, but they nonetheless will have to at least sit for the assessment.
The vote hardly ends the debate, though.
“After two years of pandemic schooling, the NJDOE should be addressing the pressing issues facing students and families rather than creating new hurdles to a high school diploma,” said Stan Karp, project director for the Education Law Center and a chief critic of the state’s testing program.
“The State Board has made a mess of the graduation rules for over five years,” he said. “Instead of adopting more flawed regulations to implement a flawed policy, the Administration and the Legislature should work together to end exit testing for diplomas, as most states have done.”
Split over requirements for students with disabilities
The livelier debate Wednesday was over a move to restore the myriad in-school requirements for students with disabilities, but with some exceptions.
The proposal called for the restoration of the long-standing rule that all students with disabilities receive both their instruction and related services in person. Gov. Phil Murphy had suspended that and other in-person requirements at the start of the pandemic, moving hundreds of thousands of students to remote instruction.
But while Murphy has since said that all students must be in schools this fall, the administration’s proposal stopped short of universal application: Schools and families of these children can agree for the time being to remote services such as counseling, physical or occupational therapies, or speech therapy.
That didn’t sit well with some board members who contended the exception would leave students with disabilities at a disadvantage and facing longer odds to get into the classrooms.
“I can’t understand where related services are not being provided as they should be in the classroom,” said board member Mary Beth Berry, herself a former special education teacher and administrator from Hunterdon County. “I am concerned these students who are most in need of in-person instruction have that opportunity.”
“These are the most crucial of services for a population that is in desperate need for them,” she continued.
Staffing an issue
State officials responded that the move is prompted by a combination of factors, including districts’ difficulties in finding the staffing to provide the services in person.
“We are trying to address a lack of related service providers at this time,” said Kathleen Ehling, the acting assistant commissioner for special services. “We know some districts are having difficulty retaining these providers, so we want to make sure as we transition back that we are not setting up a situation where students are not receiving the services they are entitled.”
Ehling stressed that the suspension of the rule would continue only until the end of the calendar year. “We are asking for these extra few months so districts can make the changes that they need,” she said.
Still, Berry and other board members worried it would be an opening to replace in-person services with telemedicine and other remote platforms.
“The governor said against a lot of objections that he wanted kids back in school and live interaction again,” said Andrew Mulvihill, the board’s vice president.
“I am hearing from a lot of districts who are having difficulty finding enough teachers and substitutes,” he added. “But why even distinguish between the challenge we have teaching kids without disabilities versus those with disabilities, who need the services even more?”
Ultimately, the measure passed easily, and acting Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan pledged this was not a watering down of services but a provision to add some needed flexibility. And she also stressed that families would still need to sign off on any remote services as part of the individual education plan (IEP) process.
“Our desire is to be responsive to the needs that the public-health emergency presented us with,” Allen-McMillan said. “We don’t see it as a crutch or diluting services.”