NJ's School Reopening Plan and Special Education
Everyone has been shaken by COVID-19. As New Jersey schools prepare to reopen in the fall, many questions loom — including how districts plan to meet the needs of students with special needs.
Unfortunately, there are no clear answers. Earlier this summer, the N.J. Department of Education released a report called “The Road Back: Restart and Recovery Plan for Education.” It provided the reassurance that special education services are expected to continue ”to the greatest extent possible.” What that means, exactly, is not clearly defined. Understandably, parents are worried.
The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and New Jersey education laws entitle students with disabilities to accommodations so that they can succeed academically. As such, districts are expected to identify student goals and work to meet them through Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) or 504 Plans, along with other services. Schools must also provide thorough and timely evaluations of students who may be eligible for special education services.
When the coronavirus hit, schools felt the blow hard. The sudden shift was disruptive to learning for everyone, particularly for special needs students who rely on specialized attention, structure, and supports that are not easy to duplicate at home. Remote learning is not ideal for these students — but depending on what officials decide, it may be how they all must begin the school year. At the time of this writing, New Jersey is still planning on reopening schools with at least some form of in-person instruction. However, lawmakers are pushing for that to change.
Here’s the encouraging news for parents of children with special needs in New Jersey:
- The schools anticipate there will be learning loss. No one completed a full year’s worth of academic learning in 2019-2020. Teachers are entering the school year expecting to see gaps or regression. According to the state report, IEP teams will be expected to evaluate those areas and develop strategies to get kids up to speed as soon as possible.
- Overdue or incomplete special education evaluations are a priority. In New Jersey, IEP teams cannot unreasonably delay a special education evaluation for a student. COVID-19 undoubtedly caused a backlog in referrals and evaluations, which the schools recognize and are working to remedy.
- Masks are not required for everyone. Students who cannot tolerate wearing a face mask may be able to qualify for a medical exception based on their disability.
- Student IEPs that currently included Extended School Year (ESY) services are expected to be honored as much as possible.
Here are the unknowns:
- What do the schools mean when they aim to deliver special education services “to the greatest extent possible?” All students have rights to a free and appropriate education, and the law protect students with disabilities. We just don’t know how schools who open at reduced capacity or online will be able to meet individual expectations. For now, just know that your child has a legal right to special education, pandemic or not.
- What happens if the schools have to close all over again? The hope is that New Jersey schools have had more time to develop contingency plans to smooth any sudden transition back to fully remote learning. This includes doing a better job serving families of children with special needs.
- What can your school do to support your child? One bright spot in the stressful time that has been COVID-19 is that some schools have displayed strokes of genius in continuing to serve special needs students, either through virtual counseling sessions, one-on-one remote instructional meetings, or structured opportunities for remote social interactions with peers. Your school may have spent the summer brainstorming for better solutions than what you saw in the spring.