In-depth Q&A with Peggy McDonald, assistant commissioner for student services, director of oversight of special education for state’s 2,500 public schools

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By John Mooney

The statewide closure of New Jersey schools has been front and center in many COVID-19 discussions, its impact on teaching and learning unprecedented. There may be no better indicator of the urgency of these concerns than the conversations about how the state’s roughly 200,000 special-needs students will continue to be served.

NJ Spotlight’s John Mooney yesterday talked with Peggy McDonald, the state’s assistant commissioner for student services and a longtime director of the state’s oversight of special education in its 2,500 public schools.

The following are excerpts:

Q: 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?

A: 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.

Q: Most special-needs students are in inclusive classroom settings, but many also are with personal aides or working with small groups. Special education by its nature isn’t remote. How do you address that?

A: I’ll give an example. Katzenbach is a state school (for the hearing impaired), and their superintendent has said their kids are doing quite well. Once they see their teacher on the screen, they’re thrilled. These kids today are used to working with virtual classrooms and instructional platforms, so while they may not be in the same room, seeing someone on the screen is the best we can do right now, and those children specifically are responding very well to having that direct face time.

Q: 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?

A: The bottom line is this is a challenge for any student, and certainly there will be some parent 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.

Q: 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.

A: This is anything but typical. The guidance from the U.S Department of Education is not that you need to review the IEP for this time, but to provide what is in the IEP to the greatest extent possible.

But districts will have to look once they are back in school at whether the student has regressed or not, and determine whether compensatory services maybe required. Hopefully going forward, we’ll be able to give more guidance on that.

Q: Do districts’ child-study teams that oversee services continue to meet?

A: As best they can. I have heard some trying to conduct online IEP meetings. Again, the federal guidance is that they can do that, as long as the parent is willing.

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

A: 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.

Q: What are you hearing from the field?

A: It’s certainly a challenge. Some schools use virtual learning more than others, some teachers better at it than others. In those that don’t typically use it, we have heard from educators looking for support around online learning, engaging students, having sufficient materials.

But what I have seen is a lot of interaction. They have a network and are utilizing the network to share resources and fill gaps in districts with the most significant needs.

Q: What about those children with the most significant needs, those in a separate school or even residential school or on the autism spectrum where they have one-on-one aides and intensive services?

A: In the day programs, obviously the one-on-one aide is not going into the home, but I have heard anecdotally where someone might be utilized to do check-ins to see how they are doing and maybe provide some support. But it is a problem, they will not be in the home with that student and that is something that parents and caregivers will have to deal with.

Q: It may be too early, have you seen any increase in complaints or concerns lodged with the department?

A: 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.

Q: Is the state’s monitoring of districts on hold itself?

A: They are certainly not going out, but they are working on reports for districts they have visited in the past. But we are not going out to districts to do any additional monitoring at this time.

Q: In summary, you have been in this job a long time and know the challenges these educators and families face on a good day. Are you feeling uncertain? Are you hopeful?

A: 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. Our commissioner is extremely committed, and it’s all hands on deck.  We’ve been meeting virtually, day and night, and we continue to be there to do everything we can to support our districts, our kids, our families.

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