On Monday, Dec. 20, both houses of the Legislature convened for voting sessions and advanced myriad education-related proposals. Several bills that the governor conditionally vetoed were returned to his desk and promptly signed into law. In addition, the Senate Education Committee and the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee met last week and approved a handful of bills affecting school districts. The following provides a rundown of the last week of activity at the State House.

Bills Sent to the Governor

The following bills received final passage and now head to the governor’s desk:

School Security Drills  A-5727/S-3726 aims to ensure students’ well-being during school security drills by dictating certain measures that must be taken in advance of, during, or after conducting such a drill. According to the bill’s Senate sponsor, the legislation would ensure that lockdown drills take into consideration the impact these drills can have on the mental health of students, while continuing the safety preparations for students should an intruder appear at a school. This bill requires that a school district must ensure that a school security drill that occurs when students are present follow the following guidelines:

  • Includes clear messaging to students and staff at the conclusion of the drill that the event is a drill and that no current danger exists.
  • Does not expose students to content or imaging that is not developmentally or age appropriate.
  • Is paired with trauma-informed approaches to address any student inquiries or concerns that may arise as a result of a school security drill.
  • Does not include the use of fake blood, real or prop firearms, or the simulations of gunshots, explosions, or other sounds or visuals that may induce panic or a traumatic response from a student or employee.
  • Does not require a student to role-play as a victim, but it may include first aid training in which students participate.
  • Is accessible to students with disabilities and mental health conditions and provides all necessary accommodations for these students.

The bill, as amended, would require districts to notify parents, by the end of the school day, whenever a security drill is conducted. As introduced, the bill would have required advance notice to parents, as well as staff. The bill also requires school districts to review and update their drill procedures using a process that coincides with the review of its school safety and security plan. During that process, input from emergency personnel, parents and guardians of students enrolled in the district, teachers and staff employed in the district, mental health professionals, and student government representatives would be collected.

As originally introduced, the NJSBA supported its overall intent but expressed concern during committee deliberations that certain provisions might reduce the efficacy of security drills. Such provisions included a requirement that all staff and parents be notified in advance of a drill, as well as a prohibition on the presence of emergency personnel during drills. The NJSBA worked with the sponsor and other education organizations to successfully obtain amendments that alleviated those concerns. NJSBA now supports the bill, as amended.

Wellness Grant Program  A-4434/S-2716 directs the New Jersey commissioner of education, in consultation with the commissioner of children and families, to establish a student wellness grant program.  The purpose of the program will be to provide grants that support school districts in implementing school-based programs and practices that promote mental wellness, social and emotional learning and student resilience. NJSBA supports the bill.

Mental Health Data Reporting A-4838/S-2811 requires the annual school report card submitted by a school district to include the following information for each school within the district: (1) the number of mental health professionals, including school psychologists, school counselors, social workers, student assistance coordinators, and other mental health professionals, and the ratio of students to the total number of mental health professionals; and (2) the number of school safety specialists. If signed into law, it will apply to the first full school year following enactment.

Anti-Bullying Law Revisions A-1662/S-1790 makes various changes to the state’s anti-bullying law and improves harassment, intimidation and bullying reporting and investigation by:

  • Placing a renewed emphasis on a supportive school climate and culture as a means to combat HIB.
  • Creating the funded position of school climate state coordinator in the New Jersey Department of Education to serve as a “one–stop shop” for HIB information and resources for parents, students and school staff.  The office will also coordinate and collaborate with law enforcement and other agencies on HIB efforts.
  • Preserving the board’s role in HIB oversight and parental appeals.
  • Requiring funding for the “bullying prevention fund.” The fund shall be used to offer grants to school districts to provide training on harassment, intimidation and bullying prevention and on the effective creation of positive school climates, and to help fund related personnel expenses.

NJSBA supports the bill. A copy of a joint letter submitted by the NJSBA along with several other education organizations can be found here.

Alternate Basic Skills Testing for CTEs  S-4074/A-6000 eliminates the requirement to pass a basic skills test to become a career and technical educator. As an alternative, a prospective CTE can demonstrate basic skills proficiency in a manner to be determined by the NJDOE. NJSBA supports the bill, which is intended to alleviate the shortage of career and technical education teachers.

Regional Reapportionment  A-2300/S-3129 requires the apportionment of membership on certain regional district boards of education to be based on the amount of district costs apportioned to each constituent municipality. This bill concerns the membership of the board of education of a regional school district in which a reapportionment of costs among the constituent municipalities has been determined by the New Jersey Commissioner of Education, not the voters of the district.  Under these circumstances, the regional district will apportion the membership of its board of education based on how the costs of the regional district are shared among the constituent municipalities, except that each constituent municipality would have at least one member on the board.

New Laws Enacted

The following measures had been conditionally vetoed by the governor in November. On Monday they received final concurrence from the Legislature, and on Tuesday Gov. Murphy promptly signed them into law:

Robotics  S-2204/A-2455 establishes a pilot program in the NJDOE to support FIRST Robotics Programs in school districts. This bill directs the commissioner of education to establish a three-year pilot program that provides grant funding to encourage and support school districts to establish the “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology”  nonprofit organization’s robotics programs and to participate in a FIRST Robotics Competition. The purpose of the pilot program is to motivate students to pursue education and career opportunities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The law takes effect immediately.

Mental Health Partnerships  A-4433/S-2715 creates a grant program to encourage school districts to partner with institutions of higher education to train school-based mental health services providers; expand the pipeline of high-quality, trained providers; and address the shortages of mental health professionals in schools. The law will first apply to the 2022-2023 school year.

Youth Services Program Grants  A-4435/S-2717 requires the New Jersey Department of Children and Families to give priority to certain school districts  when awarding contracts under the School-Linked Services Program. Specifically, priority will be given to applicants seeking to establish or expand programs that include in their application a center or other entity that focuses on providing individual, family and group clinical mental health counseling services to students. The law takes effect immediately but will expire in two years to allow the DCF to evaluate this approach.

Student Journalists’ Rights S-108/A-169 concerns speech rights of student journalists at public schools and public institutions of higher education. Specifically, the bill provides that a student at a public school or a public institution of higher education who gathers, compiles, writes, edits, photographs, records, or prepares information for dissemination in school-sponsored media has the right to exercise freedom of speech and of the press, and is responsible for determining the news, opinion, feature, and advertising content of the school-sponsored media. The bill does not protect student expression that: (1) is libelous or slanderous; (2) constitutes an unwarranted invasion of privacy; (3) is profane or obscene; (4) violates federal or state law; or (5) so incites students as to create a clear and present danger of the commission of an unlawful act, the violation of policies of the school district or institution, or the substantial disruption of the orderly operation of the school or institution.

The bill requires school districts to adopt a written policy concerning student freedom of expression by the first full school year following the date of enactment (i.e., 2022-2023).

The NJSBA worked with its partners in other educational associations and successfully secured conditional veto language that will permit school district administrators to restrain student expression simultaneously with showing a justification for the restraint, rather than requiring that such a showing precede the restraint. This will ensure that students have the right to speak freely, while preserving the ability of administrators to maintain the safe and orderly operation of the school district.

The law takes effect immediately.

Culturally Responsive Teaching A-5312/S-2834 would mandate that all candidates for teaching certification complete a course on culturally responsive teaching. The bill defines “culturally responsive teaching” as a pedagogy that recognizes the importance of including students’ cultural references in all aspects of learning, using research-based teaching strategies that make meaningful connections between what students learn in school and their cultures, languages and experiences. As conditionally vetoed and signed into law by the governor, the requirement goes into effect for the 2022-2023 school year.

Senate Voting Session

The Senate approved the following bills that now head to the General Assembly:

Mercury Flooring S-1715 requires new flooring for K-12 schools and childcare centers to be certified mercury free. A flooring manufacturer that issues a certificate that falsely states that a flooring product is free of mercury and compounds containing mercury will be liable to a civil penalty of $10,000 for a first offense and $25,000 for a second or subsequent offense. NJSBA supports the bill.

Electric School Buses S-4077 requires the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to develop and implement an electric school bus program. The legislation provides for $15 million in the first year and $15 million annually in the subsequent two years to the department, subject to availability, to provide grants to support the program. NJSBA supports the bill.

Assembly Voting Session

The General Assembly approved the following measures. They now return to the Senate to concur with amendments made in the Assembly:

Evaluating Teacher Prep Programs S-2830/A-5291 requires each educator preparation program to annually report to the New Jersey Department of Education on the first-time and overall test pass rates of candidates for an instructional certificate, for each test required for instructional certification. The bill also requires the department to annually compile the test pass rates of candidates for an instructional certificate into a comparative profile of all educator preparation programs. The pass rates will be included within the documentation required for the commissioner of education’s periodic review of educator preparation programs.

AAPI Instruction  S-4021/A-6100 requires school districts to provide instruction on the history and contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders as part of the implementation of New Jersey Student Learning Standards in social studies.  The bill would also require a board of education to have policies and procedures in place pertaining to the selection of instructional materials that comply with the provisions of this bill. In adopting materials for use in the school district, a board of education would be required to adopt inclusive instructional materials that portray the cultural and economic diversity of the AAPI community. If enacted, the bill would first apply to the 2022-2023 school year.

Reporting Discipline Data A-1184/A-4414/S-1020 requires the School Report Card to include a demographic breakdown of students who receive disciplinary actions and requires the commissioner of education to establish a statewide database concerning various disciplinary actions. This bill would require that there be a demographic breakdown by race, gender, disability and grade level of the students who receive discipline, as well as the types of discipline imposed.

The Assembly also approved the following bills that move to the Senate:

Enrolling Students of Military Families  A-5694 permits dependents of a military member to enroll in a school district in advance of the military member’s relocation to the district. The NJSBA supports this bill and successfully got an amendment to clarify that military families should present a copy of their relocation orders to the district prior to their enrollment in the district.

NJQSAC Postponement  A-6001 provides for postponement of the New Jersey Quality Single Accountability Continuum  review for certain school districts for the 2021-2022 school year. The NJQSAC review of certain districts would be postponed, allowing school districts and the department of education to focus additional resources on addressing issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic.  The bill would postpone until the 2024-2025 school year the comprehensive review of districts that: (1) are required to undergo a comprehensive review in the 2021-2022 school year; and (2) were designated as a high-performing district. The commissioner of education is required to permit a high-performing school district that is subject to postponement under the bill to undergo a comprehensive review in the 2021-2022 school year, upon request by the school district. If a district was not designated as a high- performing district in the school district’s most recent comprehensive review, the NJQSAC process continues as scheduled, except that such a district may postpone its comprehensive review until the 2022-2023 school year if the district provides written notification to the commissioner of education that it is not able to complete the review due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.  A school district that postpones its comprehensive review pursuant to this exception would be required to undergo its next review as if the postponement had not occurred (i.e., three years after the school year in which the review was originally scheduled to take place). NJSBA supports the bill. Similar legislation was approved last December that applied to districts that were up for review in the 2020-2021 school year.

Senate Education Committee

In what will be one of the last meetings presided over by longtime committee chair Sen. Teresa Ruiz, the committee met and advanced the following bills Thursday, Dec. 16:

Residency Requirement Repeal  S-4203 eliminates the requirement that employees of a school district have their principal residence in New Jersey.  This requirement was established by law in 2011 and currently applies to all public officers and employees, with certain limited exceptions. While eliminating the residency requirement, the bill does require a school district seeking to fill an open position to make a good faith effort to hire a person who maintains a principal residence in New Jersey for the open position. NJSBA strongly supports the bill, which would increase the pool of potential job applicants and help address staffing shortages districts are experiencing. On Monday, the bill was amended on the floor to make it a three-year pilot program, rather than an outright repeal of the residency requirement.

Remote Learning Pilot Program  S-3123/A-4789 establishes the Safe and Equitable Remote Learning Pilot Program in the NJDOE to support the remote learning safe havens by certain eligible districts, including the Camden, Newark, Passaic, Paterson, and Trenton school districts.

The bill provides that when an eligible district implements a program of virtual or remote instruction or a program of hybrid instruction approved by the commissioner of education, the district may, with the approval of the executive county superintendent of schools, establish one or more remote learning safe havens.  Each remote learning safe haven would be used for the delivery of remote instruction to enrolled students in accordance with applicable social distancing and other health and safety guidelines.  Under the bill, the district would be required to provide broadband Internet service to the facility.  The bill requires this service to be sufficient for every enrolled student who is eligible for free or reduced-price meals under the state school lunch program to participate in remote instructional sessions at the facility. NJSBA supports the proposed pilot program, which could be expanded to include additional districts in the future.

Asian American Heritage  S-3764 establishes a commission on Asian Heritage in the NJDOE. The purpose of the commission would be to survey, design, encourage, and promote the implementation of historical, cultural and educational programs concerning people of Asian and Asian American descent in New Jersey. NJSBA supports the bill.

COVID Assistance Reporting S-4206 requires NJDOE to annually report to the governor and Legislature the amount of federal aid related to COVID relief it receives and distributes to districts as well as the purposes for which grant funds were used by these districts. Additionally, NJDOE would submit a final report regarding the expenditure of federal grant funds received to address the impact of COVID-19 on public education no later than six months following the complete exhaustion of funds by recipient school districts. NJSBA continues to monitor this bill.

Due Process for COVID-Related Claims S-4245 extends the period of time for filing special education due process petitions related to COVID-19 school closures and periods of virtual, remote, hybrid, or in-person instruction. This bill would allow a parent, guardian, or local educational agency to file a request for a due process hearing regarding the identification, evaluation, educational placement, or the provision of a free and appropriate public education of a child with a disability during a COVID-19 school closure or a period of virtual, remote, hybrid, or in-person instruction occurring between March 18, 2020, and Sept. 1, 2021, at any time prior to Sept. 1, 2023. Under the bill, a local educational agency is required, not later than Dec. 31, 2022, or earlier if requested by a parent or guardian, to hold an IEP team meeting to discuss the need for compensatory education and services for every student with a disability who had an IEP at any time between March 18, 2020, and Sept. 1, 2021.  The bill provides that a parent or guardian may file for a due process hearing at any time, up to and including Sept. 1, 2023, to challenge the determinations of the IEP team if the parent or guardian disagrees with the determinations. For those IEP teams that have not yet resolved the issue of needed compensatory services for which individual students may be eligible, this bill would give districts an additional year to resolve those issues before going to the Office of Administrative Law.  As introduced, the bill would have allowed parents to request a due process hearing up to four years following the date of an alleged action that forms the basis for the petition. The Association worked with various stakeholders to develop this alternative approach. Therefore, NJSBA supports the bill, as amended.

Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee

The committee approved the following school-related measures on Thursday, Dec. 16:

District Website Accessibility S-3094/A-4856 requires the internet websites and web services of school districts, charter schools and renaissance schools to be accessible to persons with disabilities by establishing certain accessibility standards. Specifically, the bill requires that no public school will make available to the enrolled students of the district or school or to the public a website or web service unless the website or web service complies with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1 Level AA or the most up-to-date version of the guidelines if approved by the commissioner of education, or any other applicable guidelines or requirements as may be designated or approved by the commissioner.  The WCAG guidelines provide standards through which digital content may be accessible for persons with disabilities.  In June 2018, the WCAG 2.1 guidelines were issued to improve accessibility guidance for three major groups: users with cognitive or learning disabilities, users with low vision and users with disabilities on mobile devices.  NJSBA supports the intent of the bill but has urged the Legislature to provide funding for this mandate and continues to advocate for an appropriation.

School Bus Safety Ombudsman  S-3851/A-5814 creates the school bus safety ombudsman position in the New Jersey Department of Education to monitor and administer all school bus safety and oversight activities. NJSBA supports the legislation.