On March 3, Gov. Phil Murphy approved legislation that will give parents and school districts additional time to settle any disputes concerning the provision of special education services while schools were providing instruction in a predominantly remote or hybrid environment due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The extra time is intended to provide parents and school districts with additional time to work out new learning plans for their children with the goal of avoiding the need to file for a due process hearing with the state’s Office of Administrative Law.

As enacted, A-1281/S-905 (P.L.2022, c.2) 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. Currently, parents have two years to file a due process petition with the Office of Administrative Law. This bill would allow a parent, guardian, or local educational agency to file a request for a due process hearing at any time prior to Sept. 1, 2023, 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 instruction occurring between March 18, 2020, and Sept.1, 2021. This essentially extends the time to file a petition up to approximately 18 months, depending on the date a party knew, or should have known, about the alleged action that forms the basis for the complainant to file a petition for a due process hearing.

The bill also requires each school district to hold an individualized education program 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. Such a meeting shall occur no later than the end of 2022. A parent would then have up until Sept. 1, 2023, to file for a due process hearing to challenge the determinations of the IEP team. However, if an IEP team meeting regarding compensatory education and services was already held prior to the effective date of this bill, then an additional IEP would not be required unless agreed to by both the parent and the district. In addition, a parent cannot file a claim regarding any matter that has already been resolved pursuant to mediation, a settlement agreement, or any other judicial or administrative order.

As originally introduced in the previous session, the bill would have extended by two years the amount of time that a parent could file a COVID-related due process claim – increasing the statute of limitation for such claims to a total four years. The New Jersey School Boards Association had concerns with that proposal and worked closely with the sponsor and other stakeholders in crafting amendments to the bill, which allowed the Association to support the final version.

Expanding Remote Instruction

At a voting session March 3, the Senate approved legislation that will expand a district’s authority to provide remote instruction to students.

S-464 revises the conditions for use of virtual or remote instruction to meet the minimum 180-day school year requirement. Specifically, this bill permits a public school or an approved private school for students with disabilities to meet the 180-day school year requirement through the use of virtual or remote instruction when the school is required to close for one or more school days due to inclement weather or hazardous transportation conditions, or due to other circumstances that require the closure of schools. Pursuant to current law, a public school or APSSD may meet the 180-day requirement through the use of virtual or remote instruction only if the school or APSSD is required to close for more than three consecutive school days due to a declared state of emergency, a declared public health emergency, or a directive by the appropriate health agency or officer to institute a public health-related closure.  Current law does not permit a public school or APSSD to utilize virtual or remote instruction in the event that the school or APSSD is closed due to inclement weather or hazardous transportation conditions.  Additionally, current law does not permit a public school or APSSD to utilize virtual or remote instruction in the event that the closure is for a single school day or for two consecutive school days. NJSBA supports the bill.

Prior to passing the Senate, the bill was amended to require a school district to use at least three designated school make-up days to provide in-person instruction that will be applied to the 180-day requirement prior to providing any day of virtual or remote instruction. The executive county superintendent will also be required to notify the commissioner of any irregularities with respect to a school district’s use of its program of virtual or remote instruction. The commissioner will not allow a school district to apply to the 180-day requirement to any day of virtual or remote instruction if the commissioner determines that the school district failed to provide its program of virtual or remote instruction in a manner consistent with the provisions of the bill.

Senate Education Committee and Other Committee Action

One Monday March 7, several legislative committees met at the State House and advanced various measures that are being actively tracked by the Association. The following provides a rundown of the day’s activity.

Senate Education Committee

Epi-Pen Administration by Bus Drivers S-133 permits school bus driver to administer epinephrine to a student in emergency situations. The bill establishes certain conditions that must be met before a bus driver would be permitted to administer epinephrine, such as parents providing consent and physician orders that their child requires the administration of epinephrine for anaphylaxis. The bill also contains liability protections for bus drivers. NJSBA supports the bill.

Suicide Prevention TrainingS-528 requires additional school district personnel to complete a training program on suicide prevention. Under current law, public school teaching staff members receive instruction in suicide prevention as part of their professional development requirements. This bill provides that a school district employee who is not subject to the current requirement, and an employee of a contracted service provider who has regular contact with students, be required to complete a one-time training program in suicide prevention, awareness and response developed by the New Jersey Department of Education. In addition, each school district and contracted service provider is to annually provide its employees with an educational fact sheet and guidelines on the school district’s reporting and suicide prevention, awareness, and response protocols. NJSBA supports the measure. In a previous session, the NJSBA successfully obtained an amendment requiring the NJDOE to develop or identify training programs that persons subject to the bill’s training requirements may access and complete the training free of charge.

Smartphone/Social Media Impact StudyS-715 would establish a “Commission on the Effects of Smartphone and Social Media Usage on Adolescents” to study the extent of smartphone and social media usage in public schools, and to determine the effects that use has on students’ physical and emotional health and academic performance. The NJSBA supports the bill and would be one of several education organizations that would have a representative on the commission.

Military Impact AidS-1929 provides a supplemental appropriation for fiscal year 2022 in the amount of $1,529,089 to provide aid to certain military-impacted districts. This amount is added to the appropriation for stabilization aid in the Department of Education. This supplemental appropriation will ensure that the Rockaway Township and Tinton Falls school districts, both of which have not yet received military impact aid in fiscal year 2022, are allocated military impact aid in the amounts of $776,515 and $752,574, respectively.

Combatting Student HungerS-1677, designated as the “Working Class Families’ Anti-Hunger Act,” requires schools to provide free school breakfasts and lunches to students from working class, middle-income families. The bill is a part of 10-bill package spearheaded by Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin aimed at combating hunger and expanding programs for working-class families, seniors and disabled residents.

Currently, students from “low-income” households, defined as those with an annual income that is equal to or less than 185% of the federal poverty level, are entitled to a free breakfast or lunch. This bill would expand eligibility for a free meal by requiring all New Jersey public schools to serve breakfast and lunch, free of charge, to students from working class, middle-income families. “Middle-income family” is defined by the bill to include any family with an annual household income amounting to not less than 186%, and not more than 199%, of the FPL. To avoid an unfunded mandate, the state would provide funding to reimburse the costs associated with each district’s provision of free meals to middle-income students who are federally ineligible for such meals under the National School Lunch Program or federal School Breakfast Program. It is estimated that more than 26,000 students would become newly eligible for free meals under this proposal at a cost of approximately $19 million.

The NJSBA supports the expansion of free meals to middle-income students, particularly since the state will pick up the costs of doing so. However, the NJSBA has expressed concerns regarding the proposed requirement that all schools offer breakfast and lunch to students, regardless of the percentage of students in the schools who are federally eligible for free or reduced price meals. Under existing law, schools are only required to maintain school breakfast or lunch programs if the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced price meals in a school exceeds 20% or 5%, respectively. In its current form, the bill would require any districts that do not already operate a school lunch program to do so within one year of the bill going into effect. The deadline for establishing a breakfast program for students in grades pre-K through sixth grade would be Sept. 1, 2023, and Sept. 1, 2024, for all other grade levels. The bill does not currently include funding to offset costs associated with establishing and maintaining new meal programs.

Due to the significant financial and operational burden this new requirement would impose, the NJSBA is seeking amendments to maintain the existing thresholds dictating when schools must establish meal programs. While S-1677 and its Assembly counterpart, A-2368, have each received committee approval, they have both been referred to each house’s budget committee for further deliberation. Conversations with the bills’ sponsors and legislative staff are ongoing and will continue to ensure the Association’s concerns are addressed moving forward.

September 11 CommemorationS-713 requires school districts to include information on events of Sept. 11, 2001, as part of New Jersey Student Learning Standards in Social Studies and requires public schools to commemorate the day.

Reading Pilot Program S-724 directs the  commissioner of education to establish a three-year pilot program to increase reading levels of certain students and appropriates $1 million to fund the program. The three-year pilot program will provide students who are not reading at grade level by the end of second grade in selected school districts with summer school instruction.  The goal of the pilot program shall be to ensure students are able to read at grade level prior to the start of third grade. NJSBA supports the bill.

Removing Barriers to Increase Supply of TeachersS-896 prohibits the State Board of Education from requiring the completion of a commissioner of education approved performance-based assessment (i.e., edTPA) as requirement for teacher certification. It would remove this requirement for both the obtainment of a certificate of eligibility with advanced standing or a certificate of eligibility. Teaching candidates would have to complete a performance-based assessment approved by an educator preparation program. In its testimony, the NJSBA pointed out that the removal of the edTPA assessment from the requirements for teacher certification would not decrease teacher accountability because of the protocols in the TEACHNJ act and novice teacher supports available in local districts. NJSBA supports the bill.

Assembly Oversight, Reform and Federal Relations Committee

COVID Assistance ReportingA-2067 requires the 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 the bill.

Senate Labor Committee

The committee advanced three bills, each of which are supported by the NJSBA, aimed at making apprenticeships and other vocational training opportunities more accessible for New Jersey residents:

  • S-525 enhances and expands the State’s current initiatives under the “Youth Transitions to Work Partnership Act,” to establish pre-apprenticeship programs to assist young people to enter into apprenticeship programs with links to post-secondary education and credentials.
  • S-532 requires public institutions of higher education to waive the tuition fees of certain courses that are qualified to serve as the classroom training or education component of a registered apprenticeship for eligible persons whose gross aggregate household income is below the state’s median annual income.
  • S-533 provides businesses with a credit against the corporation business tax or the gross income tax for each employee of the business employed pursuant to an apprenticeship registered with the United States Department of Labor. The purpose of the tax credit is to encourage employers to add highly skilled workers to New Jersey’s workforce.