Worried that her son Sammy will not be adequately prepared when he ages out of his high school’s special-education programs in June, Laura Colnes, of Marlton, has been on a mission to change the law so he can stay an additional year.
Colnes and other advocates say special-education students have been especially hurt by learning loss during the pandemic and need a chance to make up for time missed. Those like Sammy, who recently turned 21, would no longer be eligible for services after June 30.
A seventh-grade teacher, Colnes has rallied for support of a bill pending in Trenton that would extend services for students with disabilities through the 2022-23 school year. She sent emails to every lawmaker and testified before the Legislature in March to urge their support.
“If you leave this decision up to individual school districts, they will deny our children the appropriate education to which they were entitled,” Colnes testified.
Currently, public school districts must provide students with disabilities with an education based on an individualized education program through the school year that they reach age 21. Typically, the last three years focus on vocational training and life skills. They also receive physical therapy and speech therapy.
Because the coronavirus last year forced schools to shift to virtual learning, Sammy and other students missed out on therapy and in-person community-based instruction that includes employment skill-building, job sampling, and travel training, Colnes said. Sammy, who is autistic and attends the Bancroft School in Mount Laurel, gets vocational training at a nearby Shop Rite.
A bill cosponsored by State Senate President Steve Sweeney and Sen. Dawn Addiego (D., Atlantic) would allow students who would age out of eligibility in June to remain in school for the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years. It was passed in March by the state Senate, 37-0. (Pennsylvania lawmakers are considering similar legislation.)
Sweeney (D., Gloucester), who has a daughter, Lauren, 28, with Down syndrome, said the bill “makes all the sense in the world to me.” He added: “Any parent who wants to have their child stay behind for an extra year should be allowed.”
A similar bill cosponsored by Assemblywomen Pam Lampitt (D., Camden) and Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D., Bergen) was referred to the Assembly Education Committee. Huttle said she hopes the bill will come up for a vote in May.
“We’re approaching the end of the school year. Time is of the essence,” she said.
Huttle said it was unknown how many of New Jersey’s 1.3 million public school students could be affected. If approved by the Assembly, the bill would go to Gov. Phil Murphy.
“It’s been devastating for many special-education students and their families,“ said Eric Eberman, public policy director for Autism New Jersey. “It certainly has impacted these students, no doubt.”
The bill received some pushback from the New Jersey School Boards Association when the measure was introduced, mainly because of the potential financial burden. But those concerns eased some with an amendment that calls for using federal stimulus funds to pay for the extra time, with the state picking up any remaining costs.
Joseph Breymeier, of Marlton, said his son, David, 21, who has developmental issues, was doing well in the Transition to Adulthood Program, or TAP, in the Lenape Regional High School District. He enjoyed working at places such as Wawa, but then the pandemic hit and everything changed.
“He’s a bright, smart kid,” said Breymeier, a lawyer. “You want them to be successful and have a chance in the future.”
Missing out on vocational training has been “a huge hardship” for Claire Wells, 19, of Mullica Hill, who enjoyed regular trips to restaurants and stores to practice life skills, said her mother, Lori. Claire, who has Down syndrome, only recently returned for in-person learning because of health concerns.
When schools abruptly closed last year, Lori Wells, a genetic counselor at Cooper Hospital, said she took over instructional duties for her daughter at home. She taught independent living skills such as cleaning and cooking that Claire completed as part of school assignments.
“There were just huge blocks of time during the day when there was nothing. There was a lot of down time,” Lori Wells said.
Advocates hope the bill gets voted on soon so districts can plan for the next school year.
Eberman credited Colnes with pushing for the bill. If it passes, says Colnes, “it’s a clear sign that these kids matter.”