For the past two years, countless students have been forced to adapt to the drastic changes COVID-19 has brought to their education. The fluidity of the pandemic has turned familiar learning practices upside down — requiring children to learn remotely, in person or with some hybrid mix of these. Students have faced each week — and, in some instances, each day — the uncertainty of where they would be or what their learning schedules would look like. It certainly has been unsettling for children, but also for their parents and families. Not only have parents had to focus on their own jobs, the financial strain of the pandemic, or potential health-related issues, but they have also been tasked with helping their children navigate learning during a pandemic.
It has been particularly challenging for the over 230,000 students eligible for special education in our state. Many families were unaware that they are required to file and actively meet with their school districts, as well as collaborate with teachers to establish special individualized education programs (IEPs) to accommodate education needs for those with certain learning disabilities. Many students did not receive the attention outlined in their IEPs, thus requiring families to file due-process petitions. Previously, the deadline to file the petitions was March 18, 2022.
Municipalities are backed up with paperwork due to the pandemic, and the previous deadline would have left far too many children without the proper resources and individualized attention for an optimal learning experience. That’s why I sponsored a measure (formerly bill A-1281), signed into law by Gov. Murphy last week, that will extend the deadline to Sept. 1, 2023.
We know remote learning has led to learning loss for students, but it has also made it very difficult for parents to stay up to date on what programs schools are implementing. Many parents rely on back-to-school nights and parent-teacher conferences to fully understand what is being taught and what help their child has received. Many families may even be unaware their child has been struggling while parents are working full-time jobs and their son or daughter is learning from their laptop at home.
New Jersey takes due-process claims very seriously, and the Office of Legislative Law does a great job helping students receive proper attention to learning programs. With close to 2,000 claims per year, the pandemic adding confusion and many families getting back on their feet, it is challenging for everyone involved to adequately help the students who need it most.
Such a high number of filings creates difficulties in conducting due-process hearings and has resulted in major delays. It is not uncommon for the hearings to last an entire school year. Our children in need of individualized education programs cannot wait another year or two to finally receive the specialized teaching they deserve. Now, they will not have to wait.
The tools for a quality education
With this new law, we have taken a significant step to correct this problem and ensure that going forward, everyone has the tools they need to get the most out of their schooling. New Jersey has top-rated schools, and it is something all New Jerseyans take great pride in. We must continue and strive to ensure students receive the absolute best that education has to offer.
Our children are our future. It may be a cliché and said often, but it is the absolute truth. It is essential they are given access to all the resources possible to aid their education while promoting inclusive and progressive learning environments.
Extending the period for filing a request for a due-process hearing gives school districts and individualized education program teams time to hold meetings to determine whether a student is owed compensatory education, while still allowing a student’s parents or guardians time to file a due-process petition if an agreement is not met. It’s a simple, responsible solution to ensuring students with special learning needs receive the high-quality education that they deserve.
This piece was originally published by NJ Spotlight News on March 8, 2022.