The state Board of Education voted Wednesday to temporarily allow special-education services to be provided over the phone or online for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic.

Public school buildings are now in their third week of being closed, and even longer in some communities, with students being schooled through distance learning. But state rules didn’t permit virtual or electronic delivery of special education services.

Now, during an extended public health-related school closure, related services, such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech and counseling may be provided to students with disabilities through electronic communications, virtual, remote or other online platforms.

Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet said the executive order signed March 9 by Gov. Phil Murphy declaring a public health emergency allows for the regular rules to be temporarily changed.

“Without this increased flexibility, students with disabilities will not receive the special education and related services they are entitled to as determined by each student’s individual educational plan, IEP,” Repollet said.

Assistant Commissioner for Student Services Peggy McDonald said accommodations are needed during this extended period of school closure, both to provide students what they need and to ensure districts meet their legal obligation.

“Without this modification, students with disabilities will not be able to receive some of the services they are entitled to as determined by each of their individualized education programs,” McDonald said.

The state Board of Education met virtually, with some participants taking part in a Skype video conference and others joining by phone.

Repollet and board members effusively thanked NJDOE officials, school administrators, teachers and other staffers, students and parents for their efforts to adjust to the disrupted school year.

“These last few weeks, the New Jersey public school system has kind of been turned upside-down,” said Repollet, who said data is being collected about how things are going for schools during the pandemic for a report that will be presented in the fall.

Repollet said teachers have shown grit in their shift to virtual schools and that many teachers and school nurses have stepped up to help more directly on the front lines – 75 in hospitals and over 600 to provide child care to essential workers such as first responders.

“Our Department of Education team has been to 93 sites, and we’ve given recommendations on social distancing, making sure that we have these health regulations that we’re following from the Department of Health, and not one time did I get any district or any district leader complaining about this,” Repollet said. “So thank you.”

Board of Education member Joseph Ricca said it’s a challenging time for everyone involved.

“This is a real stressful time and a time of struggle in a lot of areas. And the last thing I think we want parents and guardians to struggle with is whether or not they’re doing a good job as a home instructor or a learning facilitator with their children,” Ricca said. “Parents and guardians need to know that if they’re providing love and support to their children, assisting them the best that they can and minimizing stress in the household, they are doing amazing work.”

All schools in New Jersey will be closed at least until April 20 at Murphy’s direction.

Some states have already decided to close school buildings for the rest of the academic year.

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