New Jersey is temporarily revising its special education rules to help schools tackle one of the greatest challenges of distance learning during the coronavirus pandemic.
The state Board of Education voted Wednesday to allow tele-therapy and other virtual services for students with disabilities while New Jersey is in a state of emergency. The decision, made in a virtual meeting, will help schools provide counseling, speech therapy and other therapeutic services either virtually or on the phone while students and teachers are social distancing at home.
“Without this increased flexibility, students with disabilities would not receive the special education and related services they are entitled to,” state Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet said.
The change was made in one meeting through the state’s emergency powers, rather than the typical months-long process for revising state education code.
Special education advocates had petitioned the governor’s office for the change. But they also asked the state to recognize that not all services, such as physical therapy, can be safely provided for every student electronically.
Decisions should be made based on students’ individual needs, and attempts at virtual therapy should not preclude districts from making up services at a later date, the group wrote earlier this week.
Gov. Phil Murphy last month ordered all schools to close to limit the spread of COVID-19. They’re expected to remain shuttered for several more weeks.
Schools have either launched virtual learning programs or sent home worksheets, but more than 200,000 students in special education programs are entitled to services that typically require in-person assistance from specialists.
Some students with multiple disabilities require a team of specialists for therapy and other related services during the typical school day. Now, those students are home with their parents all day, every day.
“I’m terrified,” Joanne De Simone, a West Orange mother of a special education student, said last month.
The state Department of Education was allowed to modify its rules under Murphy’s March 9 state of emergency declaration, which allows departments to suspend rules that would be detrimental to the public welfare during the emergency.
The temporary change can remain in effect as long as New Jersey remains in a state of emergency for the coronavirus pandemic.
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