BLOG: School Districts Need More Concrete Guidance During COVID-19

Nina Peckman, Staff Attorney

Nina Peckman, Staff Attorney

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, advocates and school districts have been struggling to overcome barriers to placing all New Jersey children on a path to a bright future through a quality education. Now, school closures caused by the virus necessitate virtual education, which has dramatically exposed and even exacerbated the inequalities and inequities in our education system. More defined guidance from the State on how to proceed is critical now, since September is just a few months away. Public education will most likely be provided virtually, either completely or in part, continuing to exacerbate the disparities of students with special needs, students of color, low-income or who do not speak English.

The broad language of the state’s existing regulations, Governor Murphy’s COVID-19-related executive orders and guidance issued by the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) since schools closed may contribute to the persistent and growing problem of disparate and inequitable education services. According to NJDOE's March 5th and March 13th guidance, schools were required to develop "health-related closure preparedness plans" while still offering 180 school days. Plans were to be guided by existing home instruction regulations that require instruction by a certified teacher, and is generally understood to require in-person home instruction for a minimum of 5 hours weekly and other supplemental educational and support services, as necessary. According to Governor Murphy's March 21st executive order, school districts were given "authority and discretion to determine home instruction arrangements as appropriate on a case-by-case basis to ensure that all students are provided with appropriate home instruction, taking into account all relevant constitutional and statutory obligations."

The broad definition of home instruction has proven to be problematic. According to news reports, parent surveys, various school staff and parent advocates, many districts have provided minimal or no direct instruction for both regular and special education programming. In addition, on May 5th, NJDOE instructed schools to post the district's school plans on their website by May 22nd, which, at a minimum, were required to describe their "remote learning plan to maximize student growth and learning to the greatest extent possible." A survey of several district plans revealed this general guidance deepened the disparities between districts.

While some districts provide daily or weekly live instruction and have maintained regular phone/email contact with students, teachers in other districts are only required to provide and review assignments if returned and answer student questions. Districts have been facing challenges providing remote learning, accommodating ESL students and their guardians who do not speak English and students who have disabilities.

For these reasons, schools, students and their parents would benefit from specific guidance and technical assistance from NJDOE. This may also be an opportunity for NJDOE to review existing regulations and guidance to better define what home instruction should mean, so that districts across the state can provide instruction in a more consistent manner and in a way that meets the individual needs of all students.

On June 1st, the New Jersey Special Education Practitioners wrote a letter to Governor Murphy and Commissioner Repollet on behalf of all New Jersey students requesting that the NJDOE issue specific guidance to school districts to define "instruction" as including some form of teaching, such as virtual/remote lessons delivered by the students' teachers both synchronously (live direct instruction) and asynchronously (recorded direct instruction that can be accessed at any time), including opportunities for meaningful discussions and direct feedback. NJDOE was also asked to specify a minimum amount of instruction. If a district cannot provide remote instruction to its students that meets the NJDOE definition, NJDOE was asked to require the district to submit a description of the specific barriers to providing this instruction and work with the district to surmount them.

Parents who believe their children are not learning or struggling due to lack of regular contact or live instruction by school staff should consider contacting their school administrators to request more direct support from school staff. If this does not result in more effective instruction or help, parents can email a request for assistance from their county education specialist (regular ed) or county supervisor of child study (special ed). For any questions regarding education rights, please contact Nina Peckman, Staff Attorney at npeckman@acnj.org or 973-643-3876.

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