School Leader recently caught up with Dr. Michael Nicosia, director of student services for the Butler school district in Morris County. Dr. Nicosia is transitioning into a new role as superintendent for the Bloomingdale district in Passaic County. He took time out from his busy schedule to discuss how the Butler district met the needs of special education students during the pandemic.

What was it like, working with special education students when the pandemic started?

Since March 2020, like most educational leaders, we have been working to solve an uncharted dilemma, to problem-solve the dilemma, communicate to all, implement the solution, and repeat — over and over.

In the early days of the pandemic, when remote delivery of services to special education students was not permitted by state law, what did your district do?

I owe all the credit in the world to our case managers and related service providers. With virtual therapy not being an option, and in-person instruction also off the table, our therapists seamlessly pivoted to “prevent regression” mode. Individualized learning plans were created for each student, therapists held office hours for parents to provide training, and Google Classrooms were developed with a plethora of tasks and activities to target student goals.

What happened after the New Jersey State Board of Education approved virtual delivery of services to special education students?

Our therapists again pivoted seamlessly. Green screens (which allowed added video effects) and boom cards (interactive lesson plans) were used to deliver therapy. Our students’ parents, grandparents and siblings, in a sense, became paraprofessionals who assisted with therapy sessions.

Looking ahead, what resources will be available to help special education students in Butler next year?

We’re working with the Thrive Alliance (a mental health services group in Parsippany, Morris County, New Jersey).

Are you expecting to encounter any unusual situations as special education students return to full-day, in-person instruction?

We are anticipating that we will encounter instances of school refusal, and not just for special education students. I think we may see something like 10% of students who might have difficulty returning to school. Some of our special education kids are going to lack the endurance to be very active participants, in a classroom environment, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. We’re going to see students struggle on the social-emotional realm. So because of that, we’re going to have supports in place.

Is that how Thrive Alliance will play a role? How much does such a service cost?

We’re having the Thrive Alliance group work with our staff to prepare them on how to conduct proper home visits to empower the parents and help them get their children back to school. The cost of the Thrive Alliance program is equivalent to what one out-of-district placement costs.

You mentioned how difficult it was for your staff to meet students’ needs before the state permitted the online delivery of services. What will happen this winter if virus cases spike and school buildings are closed again? (Note: As of July 1, permission to deliver services virtually is scheduled to expire on Jan. 11, 2022.)

It would be a tough, tough situation. We would provide families with as much as we possibly can to prevent any regression from taking place. Our goal would be to help them make progress until the state permits virtual instruction again. Let me be clear: I am not advocating for virtual instruction, because I think it’s tough to replace in-person instruction. If schools close again, it would be a very big challenge to the special ed world. We are working on a lot of scenarios.

If schools close again, are you confident your staff will be able to handle it?

I’m extremely confident. They’ve proven over and over again this year that when a new challenge comes, they’re able to solve any problem. And one of the reasons we’ve been so successful is that before any decision is made, both as a leadership team, and with our child study team, we’ve looked at every possible angle, and we’ve communicated constantly to help as many students as possible. It is going to be a very active summer, but I’m very excited about the year ahead.

Alan Guenther is the assistant editor for the New Jersey School Boards Association.