The following provides a summary of education-related legislation advanced by the Legislature over the past week.
Assembly Voting Session (Thursday, June 18)
The full Assembly passed the following bills:
Bridge Year Pilot Program A-4142/S2383 requires the commissioner of education to establish a three-year “Bridge Year Pilot Program” for certain students who were impacted by the public health state of emergency caused by COVID-19. The bill would give current high school sophomores and juniors an optional “bridge year” to participate in high school extracurricular programs. It has passed the state Senate and Assembly and has the support of the governor and the New Jersey Department of Education.
Students faced a disruption to their academics, extracurricular activities and spring sports programs when schools shut down because of the coronavirus. To help offset missed opportunities and potential learning loss, the legislation would enable graduating high school seniors, from the classes of 2021 and 2022, to choose to defer graduation and participate in a “bridge year” immediately following their senior year. During this period, students would remain enrolled in high school and would take certain college level credits and participate in co–curricular activities or athletics according to the goals of their individualized learning plan.
The bill would allow students to earn up to 24 credits at a community college while allowing them to remain eligible for high school athletics in the spring. They would also be able to participate in any school–sanctioned non-athletic activity as well. As part of the bill, all public universities in the state of New Jersey would be required to accept all the credits earned. Furthermore, the legislation does not require, but recommends, that private institutions of higher education that receive financial public support also consider accepting all 24 college credits.
The New Jersey School Boards Association did not take a position on the bill.
According to the bill’s statement, under the pilot program, each school district is required to offer students in the graduating class of 2021 and the graduating class of 2022 the opportunity to pursue a bridge year during the year immediately following graduation from high school. A nonpublic school may elect to participate in the program. To be eligible for the bridge year, a student must be 19 years old or younger and cannot not turn 20 years old at any time during the bridge year, except as may otherwise be provided in the student’s individualized education program.
Graduation Insurance Coverage A-4227 concerns insurance coverage for graduation exercises held after June 30. Specifically, the bill provides that students and staff attending school-sponsored graduation exercises between July 1, 2020 and August 31, 2020, who were students or were employed by the school in the immediately preceding school year will be considered included in the enrolled and registered student population or as a school employee for purposes of insurance coverage while attending the graduation exercises. The bill passed the full Assembly unanimously and now heads to the Senate for consideration. NJSBA supports the bill.
Assembly State and Local Government Committee (Wednesday, June 17)
The committee advanced the following bill:
Electronic Construction Procurement Act A-3785/S-2085 requires all state-level contracting units to use an electronic procurement process for public works construction contracts whenever such a project requires public advertisement. While the use of electronic procurement would be required for state agencies, the bill is permissive for school districts and other local governing units, such as counties and municipalities.
The electronic construction procurement process to be used by boards of education would be the process developed by the director of the Division of Local Government Services to implement a 2018 law known as “Local Unit Electronic Procurement Act.” That law permitted local units to use electronic procurement practices for the purchase of utility services, the sale of surplus property and any other purpose authorized by the local governing body. S-2085 explicitly extends authorization to use electronic procurement for construction projects.
Importantly, if any local governing body chooses to use the electronic procurement process, the bill prohibits the unit from incurring any costs or fees related to its use, such as any cost or fee related to the use or purchase of any required equipment or software. Therefore, the legislation will not impose any costs on schools districts. In addition, official NJSBA policy holds to the belief that boards of education should be able to take advantage of electronic procurement technology and practices that result in streamlined purchasing procedures and more efficient use of taxpayer funds. Therefore, the NJSBA supports the bill. If posted for a vote and approved by the full Assembly, the legislation will head to the governor’s desk.
Assembly Health Committee (Tuesday, June 23)
Depression Screenings A-970 In an effort to address an alarming rise of teen depression and suicides, especially during a time when the country is facing more mental health issues than ever before due to COVID-19, the Assembly Health Committee approved a committee substitute on June 23 requiring depression screenings for certain students in public schools. The bill would require New Jersey public schools to administer annual depression screenings for students in grades 7 through 12, with a valid screening tool that helps identify which students may be dealing with depression. The committee substitute bill follows updated recommendations by the American Academy of Pediatrics that say adolescents 12 and up should be screened annually for depression. Before conducting the screening, school districts would have to obtain written consent from parents at the start of the school year.
Under the legislation, the screening would have to be conducted in a way that allows for real-time evaluation of the results and intervention by a licensed mental health professional that same day. If the screening tool indicates a particular student may be experiencing depression, their parent or guardian would be notified and encouraged to share the results with a primary care physician for further evaluation and diagnosis.
Various reports over the past several years, including the NJSBA’s report, Building a Foundation for Hope, have indicated an increasing number of children and teens struggling with depression. By the time they reach adulthood, one in five young people will have experienced depression. Between 2007 and 2015, the number of adolescents hospitalized for suicidal thoughts or attempts doubled.
The NJSBA supports the bill with concerns and will continue to work to improve the legislation. The Association raised questions and sought amendments which were not adopted in the substitute version of the bill released by the committee on Tuesday.
The NJSBA asked for an amendment saying that a board of education shall ensure that each student in grades seven through 12 annually receives a health screening for depression either by a physician at an annual physical or at school.
Because of the uncertainty of whether students will be physically in school or attending virtually, the NJSBA asked if language should be clarified that screenings should only take place once students are physically in school — or should there be a virtual process as well?
The NJSBA asked that the date of enactment be moved back to the 2021-2022 school year.
The bill will now head to the Assembly Speaker for further evaluation.