On Monday, Dec. 14, the NJSBA testified at the Assembly Education Committee in support of a series of bills to assist students with their mental health needs. This legislative package, spearheaded by Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald, reflects many of the recommendations in NJSBA’s October 2019 report, Building a Foundation for Hope.

That year-long research project emphasized the importance of school-based programs, collaboration with higher education and community organizations, parental involvement, and professional development to build educators’ awareness of their role in addressing student mental health and social-emotional learning.

The NJSBA testified that one in five students in the nation were already struggling with a mental health condition before the COVID-19 pandemic led to a public health emergency and a shutdown of the schools in the state. Meanwhile, the pandemic led to nationwide school closures and social isolation and placed additional stress on many students and their families. These mental health struggles persist even as society as a whole, and schools in particular, continue to search for a way to stay open safely. With a significant number of students across all grade levels already receiving critical mental health services and support in a school setting, school personnel will continue to play a vital role in early intervention efforts. Faculty and staff are uniquely positioned to identify early signs of any mental health issues a student may be experiencing.

The five-bill package includes the following measures:

A-4433: Creates a grant program to encourage school districts to partner with institutions of higher education to train school-based mental health services providers. School districts that receive a grant under the program would use the funds to create and grow programs and partnerships that train students who are attending graduate school to become school-based mental health services providers.

A-4434: Establishes a Student Wellness Grant Program in the N.J. Department of Education. A grant awarded through the Student Wellness Grant Program shall be used to support school districts in the provision of school-based mental health clinics or workshops for both students and families that engage the community on universal topics of student wellness and mental health. The grant could also be used to implement and coordinate policies, practices, and programs that support the mental, emotional, and social needs of students. The grant would cover mental health services on-site at the school to students in need of short-term counseling or crisis intervention focused on mental health or situational concerns, such as grief or family transitions, by a properly trained and licensed mental health professional.

A-4435: Requires the Department of Children and Families to give priority to certain school districts with student mental health counseling centers in awarding grants under School-Based Youth Services Program.  The center or other entity shall be separate from, but integrated into, a school within the applicant school district; open for students to visit clinical mental health professionals during, before, and after school hours; and staffed by clinical mental health professionals who are school district employees and provide mental health counseling services to students.

A-4436: Establishes a “Student Mental Health Task Force” to identify and study resources available to schools and parents to address student mental health needs. The bill requires that local boards of education have representation on the task force.

A-4437: This bill would permit a student assistance coordinator, school counselor, school psychologist or other mental health professional working in a school district to refer a student to a private individual licensed to provide professional counseling for mental health assessments and services.

Each bill was unanimously approved by the committee.  The NJSBA commends Assembly Majority Leader Greenwald for his leadership on this critical issue, and thanks both him and his staff for their diligent work on these bills over the past year.

In addition to the mental health package, the committee also advanced two other school-related measures:

NJQSAC Relief A-4975 postpones the New Jersey Quality Single Accountability Continuum (NJQSAC) review for certain school districts to help them respond to the disruption caused by the pandemic. NJSBA strongly supports the legislation, which is reflected in NJSBA’s “pandemic advocacy agenda,” which is part of the Association’s August 31 report, “Choosing the Best Road Back for Our Children.”

The bill already passed through an Assembly committee in November. However, it was sent back to committee to be amended and made identical to the version advanced by the Senate Education Committee last week. This will allow both A-4975 and its Senate counterpart, S-3187, to receive floor votes by both houses at their Dec. 17 voting sessions and be sent to the governor.

Under the bill, districts that are required to undergo an NJQSAC review in the current (2020-2021) school year, and which were designated as “high performing” in their most recent review, would automatically have this year’s review postponed until their next scheduled review in the 2023-2024 school year. Any districts that do not want to have the review postponed would have to make a formal request to the commissioner of education.

Any district scheduled for review this year that was not designated as high performing would be eligible for a one-year postponement. Districts would have to provide written notification to the commissioner of education that they are not able to complete the review due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. These districts would then undergo a review during the 2021-2022 school year. If such a district receives the one-year postponement, then it will undergo its next following comprehensive review three years after the school year in which its comprehensive review was originally scheduled to take place.

Out-of-State Reciprocity A-4783 grants reciprocity to teachers with certain out-of-state certificates. In order to qualify, a candidate must have:

  • Obtained the equivalent of a certificate of eligibility, provisional certificate or emergency certificate from another state in a subject or grade level also offered in New Jersey;
  • Passed a subject-matter test to receive the out-of-state endorsement or passed the appropriate New Jersey subject-matter test;
  • Passed a performance assessment approved by the state where the certificate was issued, or the candidate must pass a New Jersey–approved performance assessment; and
  • Obtained a one–year minimum of documented effective teaching experience.

Candidates who have not completed an approved educator preparation program can enroll in a state- approved educator preparation program and complete any remaining college credits or coursework prior to the issuance of a standard instructional certificate.

NJSBA supports the bill. Its Senate counterpart, S-2831, has also received committee approval.

Senate State Government, Wagering, Tourism and Historic Preservation Committee

The committee met Monday and approved the following school-related measure:

Addressing School Nurse ShortageA-4544/S-3150 permits a retired school nurse to return to employment during the COVID-19 public health emergency and state of emergency without having to re-enroll in the pension system. The total period of re-employment with any individual board of education is not to exceed a two-year period, unless approved by the commissioner of education as being in the best interests of the school district. Such a nurse would be able to collect a salary in addition to his or her pension allowance. The bill mirrors a provision in existing law concerning the hiring of retired superintendents on an interim basis.

Official NJSBA policy holds to the belief that school districts should have the flexibility to secure qualified staff for vacancies, including the hiring of retirees. And the hiring of retirees should be permitted particularly when attempting to fill positions of critical need. Therefore, NJSBA supports the legislation.

If approved by full the Senate, the bill would need to return to the Assembly to concur with technical amendments made by the Senate before going to the governor.