Guidance to Reopen Schools

Governor Phil Murphy and Department of Education Commissioner Lamont O. Repollet announced on June 26 the release of “The Road Back: Restart and Recovery Plan for Education,” which provides guidance to reopen schools this fall.

The plan announces that, absent a change in public health data, public schools will open for in-person instruction and in some capacity at the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year. Individual school districts together with community stakeholders will be expected to develop plans that best fits their own district’s needs.

The guidance sets the minimum standards for returning to school and describes several health and safety standards to be prioritized in school reopening:

  1. Social distancing: Schools and districts must allow for social distancing within the classroom. This can be achieved by ensuring students are seated at least six feet apart. If schools are not able to maintain this physical distance, additional modifications should be considered. These include physical barriers between desks and turning desks to face the same direction (rather than facing each other)or having students sit on only one side of a table and spaced apart.
  2. Face coverings: School staff and visitors are required to wear face coverings unless doing so would inhibit the individual’s health or the individual is under two years of age. Students are strongly encouraged to wear face coverings and are required to do so when social distancing cannot be maintained, unless doing so would inhibit the student’s health. It is necessary to acknowledge that enforcing the use of face coverings may be impractical for young children or certain individuals with disabilities.
  3. Limited capacity: It is recommended that students and staff be seated at least six feet apart in class when practicable. When weather allows, windows should be opened to allow for greater air circulation.
  4. Cleaning/disinfecting: Procedures must be implemented by each school district for the sanitization of school buildings and school buses. Increased hand washing measures are also important for students and staff.

These provisions are informed by Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines, which call for protecting staff and students who are at higher risk for severe illness, such as providing options for telework and virtual learning; providing reasonable accommodations for older adults (65 years and older) and individuals with serious underlying medical conditions; and, when possible, keeping early childhood students apart during naptime and avoiding close-group activities like reading circles.

Other provisions in the guidance include:

  1. Cafeteria directors should consider staggering meal times to allow for social distancing; discontinuing self-serve or buffet lines; having students eat meals outside or in their classrooms; and requiring staff to disinfect eating areas between groups.
  2. Recess should also be held in staggered shifts, with efforts to promote social distancing and hygiene protocols.
  3. Cohorting: Schools may wish to identify small groups of students and keep them together (cohorting) to ensure that student and staff groupings are as static as possible, thereby limiting exposure to large groups of students.
  4. School bus operators should encourage social distancing. CDC guidelines recommend seating on a school bus such that there is one student seated per row, skipping a row between each child, if possible. Barriers separating rows of bus seats may also be considered. If social distancing is not feasible, face coverings must be worn by students who are able to do so. Increased ventilation (i.e. opening windows) is also recommended in the guidelines.

As being able to reopen schools is dependent upon health data and informed by experts in the health field, districts will need to be prepared to switch to remote instruction at any time during the 2020-2021 school year should circumstances change. The guidance stresses that each school district should be working to ensure every student has a device and internet connectivity available, and it identifies funding streams available to school districts to ensure students have access to technology.

Districts should strive to share preliminary scheduling plans to reopen schools with staff, families, and students at least four weeks before the start of the school year in order to allow families to plan childcare and work arrangements.

Click here for a summary of the guidance.

Click here for the full guidance.

For more on the Jersey City School Board’s plans to reopen schools, please see Sally Deering’s coverage J.C. School Board prepares for September reopening.


Header: Dickinson High School, Jersey City Times file photo



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School Children

Taking on Education’s Toughest Task: Remote Learning and NJ’s Special Kids

An NJ Spotlight virtual roundtable brought together educators, teachers, parents to assess lessons learned, next steps with distance learning likely for rest of school year

This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit

Full story link – HERE.

By John Mooney

As it becomes more likely that New Jersey schools will be closed for the rest of the academic year and will continue to rely on remote instruction, the biggest challenges involve special education and students with special needs.

This week, NJ Spotlight hosted a virtual roundtable on the topic, bringing together the state’s top officials overseeing special education, as well as a teacher and a family advocate.

The discussion ranged from guidance the state would be providing on how to deliver this instruction to lessons learned for educators and families. The roundtable was moderated by NJ Spotlight founding editor and education writer John Mooney. The roundtable’s complete video has been posted online.

The following are edited excerpts:

Q: From your perspective, how is the state doing so far and how are the schools doing so far in providing services to students with special needs?

Peggy McDonald, assistant commissioner, Division of Student Services, NJDOE: So we have challenges, we have things that are going on. But I will say that under Commissioner Lamont Repollet, we as a team have really been working diligently every day to do as much as we can to support educators and parents. Gov. Murphy signed into law a bill that ensures equitable instruction virtually for kids with disabilities and ensures that related services can be provided. We have teams across the department, a special education representative in every single county, taking calls, listening to parents to help meet the individual needs of each kid with an IEP (Individualized Education Program).

Are there challenges? Yes, there are challenges in special education every day. Is there more we can do? Sure. But we are really working hard.

Q: What would you say if you could name one area that has been the biggest challenge in terms of special education?

McDonald: Our commissioner is truly committed to equity. It is one of our core themes. And ensuring that every student has equitable access to these services is a challenge. School districts do things in different ways. School districts, families, have different opportunities and resources. But it’s also been an amazing adventure to see all of the groups, community groups, as well as the county offices, as well as the department staff, as well as community resources, really working together to fill those gaps so that students can have access to instruction during this time.

Q: Dr. Buxenbaum, you are now the state’s special education director, but you also are a former director of special education in Ridgewood public schools. Give me your report from the field.

Kim Buxenbaum, director of the Office of Special Education, NJDOE: Our teachers, our educators, our related service providers in general are always very excited to work with our students. They went into these fields because they have a passion for teaching, for helping students learn and grow. And so, even in a regular school day, sometimes we have to bob and weave a little bit, especially in special education. We focus all the time on trying to make sure where we’re outside of the box and not in the box. And I think that our educators are really working hard in that vein to adapt to this new virtual-instruction and remote-instruction world. And I’ve been really impressed with a lot of the creative things that are going on.

Q: Lynda Shanahan, talk a little bit about the challenges you face as a teacher. What is your typical day as a special educator?

Lynda Shanahan, special educator, Pennsauken High School, member of the NJ Special Education Advisory Council: My day always begins with trying to reach out to my students. I do that through Google Classroom, emailing. I also try to reach out to parents on a regular basis. I try to figure out ways to implement some kind of instruction, whether it’s through a video or inviting students to Zoom. So I’m trying to expand my own repertoire in order to be able to reach their needs.

So right around like two o’clock, I’ll send out a Google Meets. And for those students who aren’t able to get onto the program, I do have some students that request for individualized instruction. So I also provide that as well.

I do have a few students that I’m unable to get a hold of. So I’ll do things like sending letters, sending books. Anything I can to try to make that connection with my students.

Q: I imagine that’s a challenge. It’s not like you can go knock on their door.

Shanahan: It is a challenge. And that’s one of the challenges with the situation at hand. On one hand, we are trying our best to reach out to students, reach out to families. However, it’s not always that easy. So we are trying, but it is one of the challenges.

Q: Karen Edler, as one panelist who’s not necessarily an official educator, speak to the challenges being faced by families through all of this and some of the lessons we’ve learned so far.

Karen Edler, family advocate, Price, Meese, Shulman & D’Arminio: I think it’s certainly going a lot better now than in the beginning. The reality is that everybody was thrown in this pot together. And the challenge for parents, of course, is they became their child’s teacher, their child’s assistant, their child’s one-to-one aide, if you will.

They’re also, in most cases, also trying to do their jobs. So the stress and strain on them is tremendous.

There are some districts that are doing extremely good assistance to the parents. I’ve seen some conversations with aides and parents where they’re actually able to help with some of the behaviors of the autistic population in ways they couldn’t do when school was open, because now they’re seeing the child in the home environment and hearing what parents have been saying for years.

The flip side of that coin is a lot of issues with the delivery of counseling, speech, occupational therapy, supplemental instruction. There’s a lot of frustration, and we are trying to help our clients manage that.

There’s also been a big discussion going on because some districts sent parents a release form requiring them to sign a waiver and a release prior to getting the services. And that’s something that the parent should not be being required to sign. And so that’s been a major issue, and that’s probably the majority of the calls that we get.

Q: Dr. McDonald, we have received a lot of questions about related services, counseling and other therapies. Much of them rely on being one to one in the room and now they are being provided remotely. How effective do you feel that is?

McDonald: That has to be answered on an individual basis. But what we’re trying to do, first of all, is to ensure that IEP teams have the ability to make the determination that those services would be delivered virtually.

So the issue of how these services are provided, we’ve given some guidance, but we’re looking to work with the professional organizations. We’re looking at putting more guidance on our website from the national organizations for these service providers.

Q: Can you speak to the concern that some districts are asking their special-needs families to sign releases or waivers from filing complaints over the services provided during this time?

McDonald: We’ve had discussions with our attorneys on this. And as you know, parents can’t waive away their rights. They cannot give it to either the current services or the future services. So we are coming out with guidance for districts on that as well.

We want to hear from parents. We would like them to call the county office or call our special education ombudsman, so we can address that with the individual district to ensure that no student is denied services, present or future, based on waiving their rights.

Q: Dr. Buxenbaum, talk about some of the things that have evolved in this time. Have there been any surprises?

Buxenbaum: Being able to translate physical therapy or occupational therapy into a home setting through this virtual remote instruction is something that we’re starting to look at.

We’re (also) having conversations about some of the processes in terms of evaluations and what is happening in that process. What are some of the pieces of evaluations that can be done remotely? Are there other areas of assessment that really require in-person? So we’re working with our districts and trying to have these conversations and have them be able to have good conversations with parents at the IEP table.

We’re hoping that conversations with parents can happen in a way where everybody is understanding that we’re in a really difficult situation. So there are certain pieces that we can do through an interview, through some remote observation potentially, depending on the capacity of the parents and what they have available to them. But there are other pieces that do require in-person. And so things may need to happen once school reopens.

It may be that not all pieces of those evaluations can be done. But that doesn’t mean that there are things that the teams can’t do and the district can’t do to be able to talk to the parent and figure out what’s happening with the student and put some supports in place.

Q: How about the parents’ perspective in terms of having to be flexible around what is not the most flexible of systems?

Edler: Most parents, they’re most frustrated by the lack of ability to get evaluations and a lack right now of adherence to required timelines, especially where the evaluations were commenced before the pandemic and are now continuing or at least supposed to continue during the course of the pandemic. It’s a tough issue, but I think the parents are hoping there will be more flexibility with giving evaluations, educational or psychological testing, speech testing through the remote process.

So it’s very hard because you’re trying to plan not only for your child’s future now, but this is the time of year, we call it IEP season, where parents are planning for their child’s future for next year and being where we are now and not knowing what’s going to happen when school is going to be go back.

Q: Lynda Shanahan, you and I spoke a little bit about how this situation has opened up the communication lines between families and their teachers and vice versa. Speak a little bit to that in your personal experience.

Shanahan: One of the things is that teachers are reaching out more. One of the important issues is the fact that we are recognizing going from the traditional to a more nontraditional virtual world is that students have social needs. So it’s very important for us as educators to continue to make those connections with our students. So on a regular basis, we make sure that we’re reaching out some way, shape or form via email, telephone, Google classroom. So it seems to be a part of this time right now.

Q: Compensatory services is a big issue, what districts will be able to provide these students in terms of making up for the losses. Is there guidance yet on that?

Buxenbaum: What that compensatory education looks like is going to be very different based on the individual student, how their disabling condition impacts them in terms of their education. And where are the areas where there may have been some regression and loss. So those conversations really need to start happening.

And we’re encouraging districts to continue to collect data. Progress-monitor what you’re doing from an instructional standpoint in terms of the reading, writing and math, science, social studies instruction, in addition to the related service pieces that are happening, making sure that we’re monitoring how students are doing and making adjustments along the way.

So at the end of all this, once those schools reopen, the teams can sit down and have conversations about whether a student needs compensatory education. And if so, what does that need to look like? How long? How much, in what areas? But as you can imagine, a student that may have a specific learning disability, their need for compensatory education may be very different than some of our more intellectually disabled and medically fragile children.

Edler: This is one of the biggest topics that we’re hearing. There are some school districts which have gone to effectively what they reference as a half-day schedule. So to that extent, they’re only providing half of the occupational therapy or physical therapy, any and all of the related services in addition to their supplemental instruction.

We’ve encouraged all the parents out there to keep a log of what their child is entitled to and what their child is receiving to help down the line and determine what’s been missed and what needs to be replaced.

Q: Lynda Shanahan, do you worry about learning loss during this period of time as a teacher?

Shanahan: Absolutely. Yes, it is a concern because we always want to be able to have our students to have positive outcomes. But at the same token, too, I think right now teachers are really focusing in on not necessarily numbers or data as much as we are right now, focusing on the students as far as their social and/or emotional issues during this time.

That is something that’s extremely challenging. However, as teachers and educators, we all know that that is something that’s very important. We always strive to teach the whole child. So with this virtual situation, it does make it extremely challenging.

However, we are doing everything that we can. We as the teachers and administrators, child-study team members, we’re not only reaching out, we’re trying to have videos to try to cheer them up, let the students know that we’re thinking of them. The students miss their friends. And that’s something that’s very important to look at, that piece where they really do miss those human connections with their teachers and those that really care about them and their coaches and their counselors.

Q: Are there things that have surprised you most in this experience?

Shanahan: One of the things that has really surprised me the most has been that we have increased our camaraderie; we have increased our collaboration as professionals and also in collaboration with students and families. So that has been something that’s been a good thing that I would like to see continue to be enhanced through all of this, because we really do need each other in order to make this work.

Q: Other things our panelists want to get across to our audience?

Buxenbaum: The other thing I would say is to also make sure you’re having conversations with your kids, with your students, and that folks are checking in. If they haven’t heard from a family in a while, have the case manager call and check in for those students that we know have some other challenges with their social and emotional pieces or their mental health pieces, that we have folks in the district that are trained to be able to work and to assist the families with those pieces.

Sometimes, some of the most creative ideas of how to solve a problem come from those conversations with the parents and the educators at the table. So the more we can collaborate and try to keep in mind that we’re all trying to do the best we can.

Edler: I think this time is difficult and trying on both sides. I do believe that collaboration is the key. I know parents who feel like they just have to accept the situation and that they can’t actually ask for someone to deliver their services. I would say to all parents, reach out. If you have a problem, if you see your child struggling, if you feel services are not being appropriately delivered, tell someone, tell your case manager, tell your director of special education, reach out to your county executive if you need to, if you feel that you’re not getting a problem resolved.

The children need the education, and I think when people are reaching out, we found positive responses. Maybe we don’t always agree, but we are able to find common ground and deliver more education to the child.


Header: Photo by Zach Vessels on Unsplash


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With NJ Schools Shut for Another Month, Lessons Learned, Advice from Front Lines

The past month has revealed strengths of educators, students, and shortcomings that must be remedied starting today

This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit

Full story link – HERE.

By John Mooney

Gov. Phil Murphy’s announcement yesterday that New Jersey’s schools would remain closed and relying on remote instruction for at least another month was never really a matter of if, but of how long.

And the news that the closure would be extended until at least May 15 left open a glimmer of possibility that schools could come back for a month or two, maybe salvaging something symbolic for the year, including high school graduations.

But as 26 other states have taken steps to shut schools for the rest of the academic year, New Jersey’s more deliberate approach means another four weeks of struggling to keep their balance for the state’s public and private schools — all of which have already undergone seismic changes in the past month and now are in it for the longer haul.

Faced with that prospect, NJ Spotlight queried a few New Jersey education leaders, advocates and others to ask about lessons learned over the last month and on what lies ahead. A few issues dominated.

Technology divide

At a time when remote instruction relies on technology like never before, there was widespread acknowledgement among both those inside education and out that the digital divide of computer haves and have-nots is as steep as everyone feared.

The state a week ago said that just 70% of districts had 90% or more of students with the necessary technology for remote instruction, and at least 100,000 students still were without devices or internet connectivity, or both.

School leaders yesterday said the digital divide has long been realized but now it was hitting home.

“The inequity of our poorer communities to use digital resources for students and families to connect with schooling and even their families has been bared wide open,” said Richard Bozza, a former superintendent and now executive director of the state’s superintendents association.

Advocates were equally worried.

David Sciarra of the Education Law Center listed as his first two lessons: “1) How unprepared we find ourselves in providing students effective and equitable learning by remote, digital means; 2) the need to begin preparing right now for the thousands of students who will experience learning loss and need compensatory education to catch up when schools reopen.”

Shelley Skinner of the Better Education Institute said she was surprised how wide the gap was in many communities.

“Chromebooks aren’t even that expensive,” she said. “We just haven’t been able to turn the corner on online learning in this state.”

And the superintendent of one of the state’s largest districts agreed.

“Device and internet access must be available to every student in our state to be able to provide remote learning and interact with teachers, peers, guidance counselors, and administrators,” said Scott Rocco, superintendent of Hamilton schools.

“A device and internet for students should be a standard educational resource for today’s students, just as textbooks and notebooks were for those of us who went to school years ago.”

Educator — and family — resilience

At the same time, credit and praise is widespread for educators and others inside the schools for trying to make it work. Rocco, the Hamilton superintendent, said the cooperation inside his district has been palpable.

“Faculty, staff, administration, students, and parents are doing everything they can to make remote learning work as best as possible,” he said.

“I’ve seen wonderful team work, effort and collaboration. It’s not perfect, and there are issues from time to time but people are coming together in a tough situation. It is inspiring to see.”

The president of the state’s dominant teachers union cited the adaptability of her members.

“Almost overnight — and literally overnight in some cases — they transitioned to remote instruction as well as totally different ways of providing for other needs like meals,” said Marie Blistan, president of the New Jersey Education Association.

State Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet also focused on praise. “We are creative, we are resilient, we are strong,” he emailed last night.

Several cited the weight this has put on families as well, many of them educators playing multiple roles. And students and families responded.

“Schools learned quickly it was so important to build a virtual learning climate, making connections with students in a variety of creative ways,” said Patricia Wright, executive director of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association.

When asked her list of lessons so far, Burlington City school principal Denise King included a lesson about creating a balance at home.

“The importance of creating a balance: work from home, family at home, instructional support at home, healthcare at home, household responsibilities, safety at home, unplug and ensure family time for fun, creativity and laughter at home,” she wrote.

We’re not done yet

Murphy’s ambiguous timeline speaks to the uncertainty of what lies ahead. He repeatedly has mentioned the pushback he has received from families about lost sports seasons and lost graduations.

“Whether it’s sports or seniors wanting to see their graduation ceremonies, I have nothing but complete sympathy,” Murphy said yesterday, himself the parent of a high school student.

“Please know we are not in any shape or form trying to be Dr. No here. Nothing would give me more joy than saying we’re ready to go … But we are just not there yet. If we can continue the course for another four weeks, we may have a different message at that point.”

Maybe not so coincidentally, the state’s interscholastic sports association in the middle of Murphy’s announcement yesterday put out a release that it could still pull off a spring season of high school athletics starting as late as May 25.

With the state’s current education commissioner Lamont Repollet sure to be part of that decision going forward, one of New Jersey’s former commissioners said it will clearly require some creativity on all parts to salvage something out of the year and stem the potential losses, even if it means improvised summer sessions.

“We need to think out of the box in setting an educational and community vision for getting students back into the classroom for at least a few weeks during June, July and August,” said David Hespe, who served as commissioner across three decades, most recently under former Gov. Chris Christie.

“To do otherwise would mean some students will be out of the classroom for six months by the time Labor Day arrives.”

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Murphy Waives All State Testing for New Jersey’s Graduating Seniors

But there are few other certainties as of yet, including how to reach students who have no access to technology for remote learning and how long lockdown will last

This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit

Full story link – HERE.

By John Mooney

New Jersey’s 2,500 public schools and 1.4 million students are in limbo when it comes to how this school year will proceed and how it will end. But yesterday, Gov. Phil Murphy and his administration answered at least a few of the questions.

In a sweeping executive order, Murphy announced in his daily briefing that he had extended the current closure indefinitely — hinting that a firmer decision is still at least a week away. But he also announced an end to limbo for roughly 13,000 high school seniors, waiving all state testing requirements for those hoping to graduate with a diploma this June.

Murphy had already suspended the testing for the spring, but his order said any final hurdles — including a last-resort portfolio appeal — would be removed and graduation assured as long as the students met local requirements.

“They will no longer need to submit an appeal in order to graduate,” Murphy said.

The decision won quick plaudits from advocates who had worried in the early days of the pandemic that these students would be unintentionally harmed.

“The reduced availability of alternatives and the difficulty of implementing the portfolio with schools closed made enforcing the testing requirement untenable,” said Stan Karp, director of secondary reform for the Education Law Center.

“The governor’s decision provides needed relief for 13,000 seniors who were on track to graduate in June and for their schools. It will allow them to concentrate on the many challenges they face in light of the pandemic.”

Nixes testing for teacher evaluation

Murphy’s orders also specifically eliminated the use of testing for evaluating teachers, although it was already minimal, and gave a few local districts flexibility in pushing back school board and budget votes from April to May 12.

Nonetheless, the governor and state Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet at the daily briefing didn’t mince words that challenges and uncertainties remain, including around the large numbers of students without the technology for remote instruction.

By the state’s own survey, more than 100,000 students don’t have either the internet connectivity or the one-on-one devices needed for distance learning. Paper-and-pencil tools are still available, but officials conceded the more technology the better.

“Online learning is just one tool,” Repollet said. “Continuous instruction can come in many ways.”

The commissioner pushed to give an upbeat appraisal, saying educators statewide had made remarkable strides in a few weeks. “These extraordinary circumstances call on all of us … to reach for new heights of innovation, collaboration and mutual support,” he said.

“We have been at this 20 days,” the commissioner said.

How long in lockdown?

Still, the basic question remains about how long schools would be in lockdown and relying on remote instruction. Murphy has said that decision wouldn’t come before April 17, a month from his initial order, but he yesterday offered little encouragement that schools would be back to normal anytime soon.

When specifically asked whether families should plan for the late-spring graduation season, for example, the governor said he wouldn’t bet on it.

“I’m not trying to be flippant, but I wouldn’t put any nonrefundable checks down on the (graduation) celebrations right now,” Murphy said. “It’s hard to say otherwise. I hope I’m wrong, but I fear I am not.”


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Amid COVID-19 Crisis, NJ Seeks Pass on Student Test Requirement

Governor also says he is unsure how long schools will remain closed in favor of remote learning

This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit

Full story link – HERE.

By John Mooney

Gov. Phil Murphy settled one question Tuesday for New Jersey’s 2,500 public schools and 1.4 million students in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic — but left plenty unanswered.

A week into his full “stay at home” order for New Jersey and its schools, Murphy started his daily COVID-19 press briefing with an announcement that the state would seek a waiver from the federal government on required standardized testing for students this spring, a contentious issue in this state.

Approval is all but assured, as the federal Department of Education has said it would approve the testing waivers for the hardest-hit states. New Jersey has the second highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the country.

“With students at home and not in their regular classrooms, it is simply not feasible for us to be able to move forward with testing in any meaningful way,” Murphy said in Newark.

“The number-one priority is for students to be able to work on the lessons before them and to use the time as best as possible to keep up with their current studies,” the governor continued. “Many parents have moved into a dual role as classroom educator, and it would not be fair for them to also pick up the role of test proctor as well.”

No word on length of closure

But at the same briefing, Murphy continued to hedge on how long schools would remain closed in favor of the remote learning now taking place, in a school year that now has just three months to go. He gave his familiar “until further notice.”

“That’s just not a decision we have made yet,” Murphy said to a question from NJ Spotlight. “I think folks should expect that schools will be closed for a meaningful period of time. That is hardly making news, I know, but when we have a more specific sense, I’ll give it to you.”

And even the long-expected cancellation of state testing raised some questions about what it would mean for students who are required under law to pass the tests for high school graduation come June.

A vast majority of the upcoming graduates are well-through the process at this point. Still, for the rest, Murphy said it would not change current graduation requirements that mandate passing either an 11th grade test or alternative measures, the latter of which take place in school settings. They include achieving certain thresholds on college-prep tests like the SAT or the ACT and a “portfolio appeal” process where a student’s classroom work is taken into consideration.

But when pressed on how that process would happen with schools shut down, Murphy said students wouldn’t be blocked from graduating due to either the changes or the new uncertainty about the end of the school year. Separate state guidance has laid out that the portfolio appeal process should continue.

“We are not going to prevent students from graduating high school due to the decisions we are making about standardized testing or how long schools will be open,” the governor said.

Once the waiver is approved by Washington, Murphy said he would issue an executive order for the one-year suspension and hinted it could involve changes to other education mandates as well. The department said it would also involve the suspension of standardized testing for students with limited English skills and other special needs. The order had yet to be released last night.

Welcome news in some quarters

Even with the lingering questions, Murphy’s announcement of the planned suspension of state testing was welcomed from some school groups, including the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s dominant teachers union that has long been a critic of the testing.

“NJEA supports the decision to eliminate standardized testing this year,“ texted Steve Baker, a spokesperson for the union. “Under these circumstances, there is no way to administer those tests and no justification for losing one minute of available instructional time. We are pleased that the [administration] is pursuing the waiver.”

In what has become an annual ritual that dominates the school day for weeks, the testing would have commenced in earnest in the next month, with exams administered to every student in grades 3-8 in language arts and math and then again in high schools in specific subject areas.

In place now for decades, the statewide exams are developed and administered through the state DOE, but as they are ordered through federal law, cancelling them requires a federal waiver.

But the testing here has been contentious to say the least, with New Jersey among the states that saw open protests several years ago and widespread “opt-outs” by students and their families.

Murphy ran for office on a platform that called for an immediate end to the PARCC testing the state had in place at the time. But that process turned out to be more complicated than maybe had been expected.

The state did technically end PARCC, as other states abandoned it as well. But the same online testing basically remains in place under a different name — Student Learning Assessments. And while the administration has said it plans to seek what it terms as a “next generation of testing,” that request for proposals has still not gone out as of several weeks ago.


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Making Sure NJ’s Special-Needs Students Are Served During School Closures

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

This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit

Full story link – HERE.

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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Just the FAQs: What the State DOE Is Telling Schools About COVID-19

The NJ Department of Education has been busy issuing guidance on numerous ways schools need to meet challenges of coronavirus epidemic

This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit
Full story link – HERE

By John Mooney

The state Department of Education has been issuing guidance to New Jersey’s public schools for the past week about dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.

Included is a 15-page FAQ, frequently asked questions that range from the broad (what students must be served?) to the specific — addressing public meetings, for example.

The following are excerpts from the questions and answers included in the full FAQ, as well as other guidance. NJ Spotlight will update this document as more guidance is provided.

Q: How will districts ensure student attendance during the closures and the implementation of remote instruction?

A: “Any day on which all students impacted by a public health-related closure have access to home instruction services provided consistent with the guidance in this memo will count as (an instructional day) … Because such instruction is being provided, all students can be recorded as present for applicable days unless the district knowingly determines a student was not participating in any such instruction during health-related school closures.”

Q: What students must receive instruction?

A: “All students served by the district must be addressed in the plan, including students in preschool if the district has state-funded preschool and/or if the district services preschoolers with disabilities. The plans developed must include age-appropriate strategies and materials to meet the needs of all students. Districts offering preschool should remember to include contracted providers — private preschool providers and Head Start providers — in their planning activities. Each district plan must also include developmentally appropriate strategies and materials to meet the needs of all students with disabilities including those educated in out-of-district placements. Districts are encouraged to consult with the school in which the student is placed to provide continuity of instruction to the maximum extent practicable.”

Q: How might a district be able to administer home instruction remotely if families in our community do not have a device or Internet connectivity?

A: “Equitable access to learning is a critical consideration for any plan and will require that a district understands the limitations each student faces. Districts should consider collecting information on which students have access to a device, how that device is or is not shared, and what access each student has to a network. Schools and districts should take care to collect this information in a manner that avoids stigmatization of any students with varying degrees of access to technology and Internet service at home.”

“Instructional strategies should be varied and designed to meet the needs of the students. Districts should consider various solutions, such as utilizing partnerships with local community-based organizations and businesses, developing worksheets for instruction, or uploading of lessons electronically.”

“Accommodations and multiple means of conducting assignments should be considered for students with disabilities. If students with disabilities do not have access to internet connectivity to participate in remote or online home instruction, the IEP team will need to determine what compensatory instruction a student may require when their school district reopens.”

Q: How should students with disabilities, including students in special class programs, medically fragile students, students with one-to-one paraprofessionals and students receiving related services, be accommodated in the plan?

A: “Home instruction/services shall be consistent with the student’s Individualized Education Plan Program (IEP) to the most appropriate extent possible. Districts should talk to parents, who are key members of the IEP team, and help them consider how they may best ensure that students with disabilities have the necessary supports, including medical supports, in place during a public health-related school closure.”

Federal guidance on serving students with disabilities is available online.

Q: How should districts provide meals to students who receive free and reduced-price lunch during a closure?

A: “All boards of education must develop a school health-related closure-preparedness plan to provide home instruction in the event of such a closure. Each preparedness plan should address the provision of school nutrition benefits or services for eligible students.”

Q: How do COVID-19-related school closures affect statewide testing for school year 2019-2020?

A: “The NJDOE is communicating with the United States Department of Education (ED), other states in similar situations and school districts to develop guidance for long-term testing interruptions. We are currently evaluating all flexibilities and potential schedule changes and will provide guidance as school-reopening dates are confirmed.”

Federal guidance as it has been established thus far is available online.

Q: What options are available to boards of education to conduct business while minimizing the general public’s exposure during this period?

A: “School boards will likely need to hold public meetings to conduct business on various matters, such as developing a budget for the upcoming school year. In accordance with the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), public meetings may be held in person or by means of communications equipment, including streaming services and other online meeting platforms. All meetings, including those held using communications equipment, must be noticed in a manner consistent with the requirement of the OPMA, unless the meeting is for emergent circumstances and held in a manner consistent with the requirements set forth at N.J.S.A. 10:4-9(b).”

“Boards of education are reminded that they are required to provide a means of public comment even if a meeting is held remotely. Further, if a board of education currently records the audio or video of its meetings, we recommend that it continue to record a remote meeting.”


Header: Jersey City Times file photo

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