Credit: (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
November 18, 2020: Paraprofessional Jessica Vine helped Josh Nazaro write numbers by taking classes virtually from her home in Wharton, New Jersey. Advocates say long months of home schooling during the pandemic should be compensated for children with disabilities.

Some New Jersey school districts may be violating state law regarding services that students with disabilities have lost during the pandemic, advocates say.

In some districts, parents are being asked to write in requests for appointments related to services their child missed during the pandemic or to sign paperwork for make-up services without discussing their children’s academic gaps during that period, advocates say.

This is contrary to New Jersey state law, which requires school districts to meet with all students who received special education services between March 19, 2020, and September 1, 2021, to determine whether the student missed services during the pandemic, and find solutions to provide them.

That’s why the New Jersey Special Education Specialists, or NJSEP, is calling on state education leaders to step up oversight and intervention to make sure school districts are implementing “compensatory education” for students with disabilities related to COVID by the end of the year. The group is comprised of more than 100 attorneys and advocates throughout New Jersey who represent parents, students with disabilities and the Education Law Center on special education issues.

“I think government oversight is important in this situation,” said Lisa Hernandez, an NJSEP member and consultant at Smith Eibeler in Holmdel, who called for more transparency and clarity to help parents.

Legal right

Parents of students with disabilities in Newark and across the state have a legal right to meet with school leaders to discuss services they missed during the pandemic and ways to close educational gaps during this time. Under A New Jersey law passed in March school districts have until Dec. 31 to schedule Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings with parents of students with disabilities to discuss “remedial education” related to the pandemic.

A group of specialist specialists first sent a letter to the state Department of Education in late September to express “serious concern” about districts that are slow to comply with the new law. In the original letter, the group also asked the state for “detailed information on the law’s enforcement,” including whether the Energy Department collected compliance data, held alumni outreach events and provided training on the new law to administrative law judges.

Last month, the group sent a second letter to the state to encourage more participation and to remind school districts of their legal obligation to hold meetings with parents of students with disabilities to discuss services missed due to school closures due to the pandemic.

In April the state department of education issued guidance informing school districts of its legal obligations under the law, but the state has taken no other steps to ensure that school districts are in compliance or provided additional information to support school districts in their compliance with the new law.

The DOE had not responded to Chalkbeat Newark’s questions about the group’s letter or state education oversight at the time of publication.

Human rights activists want more active participation of the state

Advocates say they are pushing the state to do more because some families are unaware of the law or their legal rights as school districts illegally impose additional requirements to hold IEP meetings and discuss missed education during the pandemic.

“Some parents have no idea what’s going on,” Hernandez added. “There is simply a huge lack of information for families.”

Some parents have agreed to extra services without understanding their rights to compensatory tuition, Hernandez said.

“They don’t understand why they are suddenly talking about the success of their child from a year and a half ago. They don’t know that,” said Hernandez, who consulted with half a dozen parents of students with disabilities about pandemic-related remedial education. “The point is to discuss the need or potential need for remedial education.”

What schools are required to do

Parents can write to the district requesting a meeting with school officials about makeup services, but ultimately the onus is on the school district to set up those meetings by the end of the year, even if the parent didn’t request it. If a school district denies a student extra services to make up for missed services, or if parents believe more needs to be done to meet the need, New Jersey families can get help from the state by requesting a due process hearing by September 1, 2023 .

“Regardless of the conversations that take place before the end of this year, families still have nine months to decide if they want to file for due process and mediation to get additional compensatory services for their children, according to the Department of Energy’s guidelines during this period of time. Hernandez added.

“So the debate is not over.”

Compensatory education may include extra classes per week or services provided outside of the regular school day. In 2020, Art DOE also told school districts that even if they were performing virtual services during the pandemic, make-up services may still be needed when students return to in-person learning.

Newark Public Schools switched to distance learning in March 2020 due to school closures caused by the pandemic, during this time special education services were allowed to operate virtually under a a new state rule that year. Despite school districts’ commitments to students with disabilities during the pandemic, Chalkbeat Newark found it in 2020, some Newark students did not receive services for more than 10 days, a situation that constitutes a change in placement that requires an IEP meeting.

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