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.”


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