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NJ isn’t tracking school district compliance with COVID-related law for students with disabilities

Two girls are sitting on the floor in an elementary school classroom. Their teacher sits in the middle while they play with wooden toy blocks.

New Jersey’s school districts had until the end of 2022 to schedule meetings about makeup services with parents of students with disabilities.

FatCamera / Getty Images

This story has been updated to include a response from Newark Public Schools.

The New Jersey Department of Education says it is not currently monitoring whether school districts are complying with a state law about services that students with disabilities missed out on during the pandemic, despite claims from advocates that more state supervision is needed. 

In early 2022, New Jersey passed a pandemic-related “compensatory education law” that requires school districts to meet with all students who received special education services between March 18, 2020, and Sept. 1, 2021, to determine if they missed services during the pandemic. The law also requires districts to find ways to fill in the gaps for students who did miss out. 

But under the law, the state education department is not required to collect data regarding school district compliance, Kathleen Ehling, assistant commissioner for the division of educational services at the department, said in a December letter. 

Ehling’s comments came in response to letters from a group of special education advocates and attorneys to the department that urged state leaders for more oversight and intervention, after parents in some districts said they didn’t know their rights under the new law. 

The group’s letters detailed how districts asked some parents to sign documents about makeup services without having a discussion about services their children missed during the pandemic. In other situations, districts asked parents to write requests for meetings about the matter. In both cases, districts’ actions violated the state law. 

The department will review districts’ compliance during the state’s “collaborative monitoring process,” which is a comprehensive review of federal and state special education programs and regulations later this year, the agency added.

In addition, “A further targeted review will be conducted in 2023 to ensure compliance” with the law, Laura Fredrick, communications director for the state education department, told Chalkbeat Newark in December. Districts not in compliance will have to adopt a corrective action plan, she said. 

Under the law, school districts had until Dec. 31 of last year to schedule Individualized Education Program (often known as IEP) meetings, with parents of students with disabilities to discuss academic gaps during the pandemic and makeup services to address learning disruptions.

Even though that deadline for school districts has passed, Elizabeth Athos, a senior educational equity attorney at the Education Law Center, said that “if a district didn’t do anything, obviously that’s not good, but it doesn’t mean the district is off the hook.” 

Athos, who’s also a member of the New Jersey Special Education Practitioners advocacy group that spearheaded the letters to the state about the matter, said parents should “still try and get school districts to the table” to discuss makeup services and their children’s academic progress during the pandemic.

If a district did not schedule an IEP meeting or discuss missed services during the pandemic, families can also take matters to the state by filing a complaint or requesting a due process hearing by Sept. 1. However, Athos said that strategy could be daunting for some parents who might have trouble navigating the system. 

Special education concerns persist amid COVID

The lack of continuous oversight by the state could aggravate fears about the support for students with disabilities during the pandemic.

In April 2020, a new state rule allowed districts to offer special education services virtually. But around the same time, the state department of education also told school districts that even if they offered virtual services for students with disabilities during the pandemic, makeup services might still be needed when students returned to in-person learning.

Despite the flexibility districts received with respect to students with disabilities, Chalkbeat Newark found that in 2020, some of these students hadn’t received services for more than 10 days, a situation that constitutes a change in a student’s IEP, which in turn requires a meeting. 

Newark Public Schools spokesperson Nancy Deering said the district “uses internal staff and external vendors to cover any service that may have been missed and families can contact the CST [child study team] at any time.”

“We continue to hire staff and vendors to provide compensatory services,” Deering added. 

Marilyn Mitchell, the district’s director of special education did not respond to Chalkbeat’s requests for comment about Newark’s compliance with the compensatory education law. 

Last year, the state issued a corrective action plan for Newark Public Schools after it found that the district failed to meet several of its responsibilities under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the main federal special education law. The state found that the district missed meetings with parents and students, and discovered flaws in student placements and other problems. 

Newark’s problems providing support and services to its students with disabilities predate the pandemic. In 2019, state monitors ordered Newark to implement a corrective action plan after they found the district failed to meet key mandates related to education plans for students with disabilities.

Parents can seek help from the state

In her response last month to the New Jersey Special Education Practitioners, Ehling said the state issued a memo before the Dec. 31 deadline reminding school districts of their obligations for making up special education services.  

Makeup services may include additional sessions per week, or services provided beyond the regular school day, such as additional speech therapy sessions or academic instruction.

If a school district denied a student extra support to make up for missed services, or if parents feel more should be done to address the need, they can find help from the state by requesting a due process hearing by Sept. 1, 2023.  

Parents who did not get an IEP meeting with their school districts to discuss makeup services can continue to request one with their school districts, or reach out to their county’s special education specialist or the state’s Special Education Ombudsman.

Parents can also request an investigation into their complaint by submitting a form to the state. However, Athos said that parents do not need a lawyer to request help from the state.

“[Parents] can keep pushing, and in theory, the state should assist and make districts do what they’re supposed to do,” Athos added. 

 Jessie Gomez is a reporter for Chalkbeat Newark, covering public education in the city. Contact Jessie at jgomez@chalkbeat.org 

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