TRENTON — Students in special education programs would be eligible for an extra year of services if they are supposed to "age out" before mid-2022, under a bill that has taken its initial steps through the state Legislature.

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Currently, school districts are required to provide a free, appropriate public education in line with a student’s individualized education program for students with disabilities through the school year they turn age 21.

Because of the disruptions stemming from the coronavirus pandemic, the bill, S3434/A5366, would extend services through the school year a student turns 22, if they’re scheduled to age out during the 2020-21 or 2021-22 school years.

Sharon Levine, director of governmental affairs and communications for the ARC of New Jersey, said “many aspects of virtual learning simply don’t translate” for students with intellectual or developmental disabilities such as sensory issues and cognitive challenges who need hands-on help in a classroom.

“Families tell us that their children are regressing on previous progress, and they are missing out on services outlined in their IEPs,” Levine said.

That includes specific services students would have focused on in their last year in their programs.

“COVID took away their chance for job skill training, for others the ability to work on social skills disappeared when school doors closed,” Levine said.

Peg Kinsell, director of public policy for the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network, said virtual programs don’t provide the help that expanding eligibility by a year would. She said families could file individually for compensatory education, but that’s a big burden on them.

“Community-based instruction, employment skill building, job sampling, travel training, all these really important pieces, plus the connection to adult service providers has been missing,” Kinsell said.

Joseph Breymeier said his son, David, who has developmental issues, was thriving through a Transition to Adulthood Program, or TAP, offered by Lenape High School – but then COVID struck. He said many people whose jobs or schooling were upended by the pandemic have a chance to make that up in a way that isn’t available for special-education students.

“They lost this whole year and a half. Again, even though it’s an inconvenience to a lot of people, for them it was devastating,” Breymeier said.

Laura Colnes’ son, Sammy, has turned 21, but she said he still needs the programs he gets at The Bancroft School to reach his full potential. She said it’s critical the Legislature acts quickly.

“If you leave this decision up to individual school districts, they will deny our children the appropriate education to which they were entitled,” Colnes said.

Michael Vrancik, director of governmental relations for the New Jersey School Boards Association, agreed that quick action would be needed so districts can plan for the year ahead.

“This bill is a great idea, but we’re concerned that districts are doing their budgets for this year that starts this summer right now. And there’s no ability to figure out how much this is going to cost,” Vrancik said.

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Vrancik said the NJSBA is collecting data now about how much the change would cost and that he has heard anecdotally from one district that the bill could add several hundred thousand dollars to their spending next year.

“I don’t deny that the services are probably required,” Vrancik said. “It comes down to, for us, a question of how do we pay for it. How do we juggle priorities to address this?”

Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, said the change would cost money and take planning but is important.

“Parents in this whole process, we have been the ones who have been left out of voicing any opinion when it comes to our students,” Ruiz said.

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