It’s not OK to exclude students with disabilities from in-person instruction

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This article was written by Paul O’Neill and published by on September 29, 2021.

New Jersey’s rules are clear – remote learning is over. Convinced that in-person instruction is much better for students, the governor pushed through a ban making the sort of online classes and Zoom call engagement that characterized the 2020-21 school year forbidden in the state. Except, it turns out, for kids with disabilities.

The New Jersey State Board of Education has decided that it is OK for districts to keep students with disabilities at home, receiving content from their kitchen tables and not interacting directly with other students. This is worrisome and is the tip of a brand new iceberg.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought with it an unexpected new age in education. Out of necessity, we all developed ways to teach students remotely; to provide a full program of instruction online. So we can do that. But do we want to? Many states have said no. Most students seemed to have a hard time engaging and thriving online, although state testing was generally suspended last year and performance metrics are scarce.

Students with disabilities were hit particularly hard by the disruptions of the pandemic. Many were not able to receive the services they need while schools provided only remote education. When kids began returning to classrooms this past spring, some medical and behavioral conditions made it hard for certain students to wear masks, stay socially distant or otherwise readily follow safety protocols. That is why our state Legislature has decided that districts can keep students with disabilities home. One state board member was quoted as saying that including these kids “is too hard for districts.”Don’t miss the best in editorials, opinion columns and commentary from writers. Add your email here: 

It is surely true that it will require work and some creativity to serve some challenging students safely. But what are we saying if we simply allow schools to exclude students with disabilities from in-person instruction when all the other kids are in their desks? The Center for Learner Equity, the organization I co-founded to advocate with students with disabilities, is concerned that by leaving these students in the “virtual basement” we may be on the verge of reviving the bad old days of special education; a time when students with disabilities were often separated, segregated and educated in the schoolhouse basement or other remote space.

New Jersey should be very careful that a legitimate desire to protect the health and safety of everyone in the school building does not result in a profound inequity that undermines much of the progress we have made over the past few decades toward inclusion and fairness. A blanket rule that schools do not need to try to meet student needs or to find ways to maintain a safe environment seems counterproductive and unnecessary.

The State Board should revisit this important issue and set a more nuanced policy. One important element of such a policy would be to involve student Individualized Education Program (IEP) teams to weigh in on what is appropriate and to consider what sorts of accommodations could be made to allow students with IEPs to participate safely in instruction in school buildings. New Jersey can and must do better and it starts by listening to the families on the ground who are being impacted and don’t want to be left in the virtual basement.