NJ’s Head of Special Education on Home Instruction for Students with Disabilities: “I’m Not Trying To Sugarcoat This in Any Way.”

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If you’re a parent of a child with disabilities, you might have panicked when you read this yesterday:

As part of [U.S.] Congress’ response to the COVID-19 outbreak, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) has proposed to include a provision in the pending stimulus bill that would give the Secretary of Education authority to approve state waiver requests for any statutory and/or regulatory requirement of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) for 1 year and extensions may also apply. This jeopardizes all children’s rights to Child Find, a free appropriate public education (FAPE), Individualized Education Program (IEP), all procedural safeguards, re-evaluations, related services and accommodations and more.

First things first: Alexander pulled the provision and IDEA is still in effect, safeguarding your child’s right to a free public education in the least restrictive environment. However, some districts and large cities have decided to halt instruction to students without disabilities too because they’re afraid of violating IDEA and getting sued. Example:

It’s true that homeschooling children with disabilities is even more challenging than homeschooling neuro-typical students, especially if they need supports not available at home like one-on-one aides; experts in Applied Behavioral Analysis for those on the autism spectrum; customized seating; speech, occupational, and physical therapists, etc. Yet some states (due, in part, from unclear federal guidance) are just throwing up their hands. Others are pretending that they’ll meet every child’s IEP or 504 accommodations, modifications, and support services. 

But not in New Jersey, at least at the state level! Despite my constant complaints about our dysfunctional Department of Education, Peggy McDonald, the state’s assistant commissioner for student services who oversees special education, gave some honest and cogent answers in an interview with John Mooney of NJ Spotlight

Here’s what jumped out at me:

NJ Spotlight: In this particularly challenging time, what message do you want to get out to districts and parents regarding the programs being provided to children with special needs?

Peggy McDonald: Each district has submitted plans that include services to students with disabilities and how they will deliver home instruction. This could mean virtually or sending home packets or devices preloaded with apps. Some are using Google Classroom, so they have direct contact with students, some are checking in.

They’re working hard, directors of special education are communicating with each other and sharing resources. We think it is going well so far. It’s a challenge, of course, but our educators know their kids, and they are the ones determining what students will be doing. They know their strengths and their needs.

NJ Spotlight: What do you do for the student when that may not work, the parent who says ‘I like the idea but it’s not working for my kid’ and doesn’t want to see their child regress?

Peggy McDonald: The bottom line is this is a challenge for any student, and certainly there will be some parents and some children who say sitting in front of a screen for two hours is not a reality.

I’m not trying to sugarcoat this in any way. The caregivers and the teachers and the behavior specialists are charged with providing as much support as they can, but there are going to be challenges for some kids, we can’t deny that.

NJ Spotlight: Will this mean reopening IEPs (Individualized Education Plans, required by federal law for every student classified with a disability)? IEPs typically don’t have a clause for this.

Peggy McDonald: [D]istricts will have to look once they are back in school at whether the student has regressed or not, and determine whether compensatory services may be required. Hopefully going forward, we’ll be able to give more guidance on that.

NJ Spotlight: Will there be challenges with required timelines in terms of when children are evaluated, offered services, due process and other procedures?

Peggy McDonald: There are some calls happening in the next couple of days with Washington where they are telling us there may be some flexibility, and we’re hoping that will come true. The bottom line is these timelines will not be met in all cases. In terms of evaluations, you cannot do a complete virtual evaluation. So we’re expecting guidance from the USDOE on how to handle that and how to help districts deal with that reality.

NJ Spotlight: It may be too early, [but] have you seen any increase in complaints or concerns lodged with the department?

Peggy McDonald: We have not seen an onslaught of complaints, our phones are not lighting up. We’ve reached out to our statewide parent advocacy network about what issues they’re having. They have not reported anything major to us, but we know they are getting calls from parents who are struggling. We are here for them, and trying to keep that communication open…

 I think we are taking it day by day. Meeting the needs of a child with a disability is a challenge on a good day. We are just putting everything we can into it.

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