Deadline extended for NJ children to receive additional help for special education services lost during COVID

Just days before a looming deadline, Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation on Thursday that extends the time that families in New Jersey must file claims to receive additional help for students affected by COVID-19 during school closures lost special education.

The new law gives families until September 1, 2023 to apply to the State Administration Office for a hearing for additional benefits for children who missed special education and therapy while their schools were remote during the pandemic.

Families previously only had until March 18 — the second anniversary of the day most New Jersey schools switched to distance learning due to COVID — to file a claim for the entire time their children attended church services have missed.

Advocates urged lawmakers to extend the deadline because many of the families of the state’s 230,000 special education students are unaware they can ask their school districts to make up any day of classes and services missed due to COVID.

“These bills have broad support because they provide much-needed freedom for both families and schools to resolve claims cooperatively and because they prioritize student needs,” said Elizabeth Athos, lead attorney for the Education Law Center, one in Newark resident attorney advocacy.

As schools transitioned to distance learning in 2020, many children on individualized education programs known as IEP plans were suddenly cut off from individualized classes and therapy at school. This included everything from one-on-one reading classes to speech therapy, physical therapy, and occupational therapy.

Under federal law, students are entitled to “compensatory education” to make up for what they missed. That means they can get additional help and services from their school districts for every study day they didn’t receive.

For example, if a student missed 100 days of speech therapy sessions at school while studying remotely at home during the pandemic, the child may be eligible for an additional 100 days of speech therapy sessions to make up for the lost time. These 100 catch-up sessions could be during the school day in addition to their current speech therapy, or in additional sessions paid for by their school districts during the summer or after school.

In some cases, school districts also pay for tutors or other classes so students can get extra help outside of school.

Most families can contact their school district to work out a make-up agreement. If this does not succeed, they can apply for a regular hearing at the State Office for Administrative Law.

Disability and education advocates have lobbied over the past year for lawmakers to legislate to extend the deadline for filing a hearing to 2023 to give parents and overwhelmed school districts more time to meet with families on “compensatory education.”

The original law extending the deadline was approved by the state Senate, but was not sent to the assembly for a vote before the end of the January legislature, much to the frustration of supporters.

Therefore, the bills (S905 and A1281) were reintroduced at the start of the new legislature and accelerated to surpass the March 18 deadline. The law passed the state Senate last month by a vote of 34 to 0. The assembly approved the law by a 74-0 vote Monday before it was submitted to the governor for signature.

“By postponing the deadline to file a legal claim, parents will have more time to work with their child’s school district to create a learning plan to compensate for lost services,” said Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, the state’s Majority Leader who is the sponsors of the Senate bill .

It’s unclear how many of the state’s students with IEP plans have asked their school districts to make up for services lost during the pandemic, or how many know they can request a hearing.

The new law requires school districts to hold an IEP meeting with families no later than December 31 to discuss the need for alternative services for any student with a disability affected by school closures between March 18, 2020 and September 1, 2021 is affected.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the education of countless students across New Jersey, who have had to adapt to drastic changes while facing unprecedented stress and isolation. This is especially true for the more than 230,000 students who are eligible for special education in our state,” read a joint statement by Rep. Sterley Stanley, D-Middlesex, Rep. Linda Carter, D-Union, and Rep. Raj Mukherji, D-Hudson , some of the bearers of the legislation.

“Extending the deadline for submitting a due process request is critical to ensure these students continue to receive an education that meets their special needs during the pandemic,” they added.

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Kelly Heyboer can be reached at [email protected].

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