Attention New Jersey Parents: This Deadline is Looming

Justine Kattouf is a Maplewood student with profound autism; Covid-school closures and subsequent remote learning were a disaster for him. He would wake up every morning, his mom says, and with his very limited language skills say “bus.” 

There was no bus. And Justin was about to age out of school, which in New Jersey happens at age 21, and “fall off the cliff” (see my family’s experience below), a predicament for special needs families who, after 18 years of having government-mandated programming for their children, are faced with the prospect of none. 

That’s why the New Jersey State Legislature passed a law in May 2021, S 3434, that gives a three-year extension of special-education eligibility for “students whose lives had been disrupted by the pandemic.” The bill allots $600 million to allow students like Justin (there are 8,700 of them) stay in school an extra year.

Just one problem: no one knows about it. And  the deadline for applying for compensatory services is December 31st, 2022, less than a month away. 

Halfway through the three-year period, the state has spent $36.4 million for 442 students who have taken advantage of the additional year of services, according to the New Jersey Department of Education. That’s just 5% of the participation originally predicted.

For parents of older teenagers with disabilities, time is running out to receive those compensatory services missed while schools were closed or operating remotely. (Try to do speech therapy on a Zoom screen. Trust me, it doesn’t work.) This includes federally-mandated “transition services,” which are supposed to prepare young adults with disabilities for life after school.

There are several reasons why those eligible aren’t receiving these services. First, there’s a real shortage of aides to work side by side with students in pre-vocational programs. North Jersey notes that the bill “stalled on Murphy’s desk” so he didn’t sign it until mid-June (and only after “advocates flooded his office with calls”) when schools were letting out. And some districts play games with families, claiming eligible students aren’t, in fact, eligible. (Here’s a good overview of your special needs child’s rights bestowed by the Legislature.)

For example, reports Chalkbeat, “despite school districts’ obligations to students with disabilities during the pandemic, Chalkbeat Newark found that in 2020, some Newark students hadn’t received services for more than 10 days, a situation that constitutes a change in placement requiring an IEP meeting.”

The law throws a lifeline for students like Justin.. But only if parents proactively work with their school districts to secure services, instruction, and therapies that were tossed to the side during pandemic school closures. 

The clock is ticking. Talk to your case manager now.

Laura Waters

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