On May 20, the full state Assembly approved more than half a dozen education-related measures, including a bill that could entitle special education students to an additional year of services beyond the year they are scheduled to “age out” of eligibility. Below is a summary of the most recent legislative action.

Assembly Voting Session

Special Education ‘Aging Out’  A-5366/S-3434 The bill would require boards of education to provide special education and related services to students exceeding the age of eligibility. This bill would extend  eligibility by requiring school boards to provide the services included in an individualized education program (IEP) to students who reach the age of 21 during the 2020-2021 school year, the 2021-2022 school year, and the 2022-2023 school year, provided that the parent of the student and the IEP team decide that the student requires additional services, including transition services. NJSBA expressed reservations about the bill, citing the costs and logistical challenges of ensuring adequate facilities and staffing levels.

The bill now heads back to the state Senate, which passed a previous version of the bill in March, to concur with amendments made in the Assembly. Once approved by the Senate, the bill would go to the governor’s desk.

‘Laura Wooten’s Law’/Civics Instruction  S-854/S-237/A-3394 This legislation makes revisions to current law that requires the NJDOE to prepare curriculum guidelines for the teaching of civics for use by local school boards. The bill directs the New Jersey Center for Civic Education at Rutgers University to prepare curriculum guidelines and provide professional development for high school social studies teachers. The bill also requires the provision of civics instruction to middle school pupils in public schools. The legislation has now passed both houses and is on the governor’s desk. If signed into law, it will go into effect with the 2022-2023 school year. The legislation is named after Laura Wooten, who worked as an election poll worker for 79 years, ensuring that citizens had the right to participate in free and fair elections. Wooten, who died in 2019 at the age of 98, held the record as the longest, continuously serving poll worker in the United States, according to a profile published by Princeton University shortly after her death. She was acknowledged by Gov. Phil Murphy as a “moral voice of the state,” according to the profile by Princeton, where she worked for 27 years, checking student ID cards in the dining hall. Wooten was profiled in the Feb. 2, 2021 edition of School Board Notes.

Student Depression Screenings  A-970/S-2259 establishes the “Mental Health Screening in Schools Grant Program” in the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE). School districts would be able to apply for funding and resources to implement annual depression screening programs to identify students in the grades seven through 12 who are at risk of depression. The bill places a variety of conditions on any school districts receiving a grant under the program, including assurances that student privacy will be protected and that parental consent be obtained prior to administering a screening on a student. The bill appropriates $1 million. This legislation previously required all school boards to ensure that every student in grades seven through 12 would receive an annual screening for depression. However, the bill was amended just before receiving final legislative approval to create this grant program instead of establishing a screening mandate. NJSBA supports this revised, voluntary approach.

Community Schools Pilot Program  A-1055 establishes a five-year Community Schools Pilot Program. The program would be managed by an in-state nonprofit organization selected by NJDOE. That organization would provide group training sessions and information about community schools available to any district interested in establishing a community school. Additionally, the organization would be responsible for selecting up to 50 schools, including charter schools, that would receive direct assistance from a site coordinator assigned to the school.

NJDOE will select two outside entities to supervise the managing organization – a financial firm that will annually audit the program and an independent entity to conduct an evaluation of the pilot program. This program is anticipated to cost $26 million over the five-year period. Funding would be provided both through monies appropriated by the Legislature and private contributions. NJSBA supports this bill.

Suicide Prevention/Student ID Cards  A-1616/S-550 would require that student identification cards for grades seven through 12 have the telephone number for a suicide prevention hotline printed on the back of the card. The bill now goes back to the Senate to concur with Assembly amendments. NJSBA continues to monitor the bill but has taken no position.

Remote Learning Pilot  A-4789 establishes a “Safe and Equitable Remote Learning Pilot Program” in NJDOE to support provision of remote learning safe havens by certain school districts, including the districts in Camden, Newark, Passaic, Paterson and Trenton. 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 New Jersey Commissioner of Education, the district may, with the approval of the executive county superintendent of schools, establish one or more remote learning safe havens.

Energy Efficiency Stimulus Program  S-3033/A-4819 will, among other things, help schools upgrade their water and ventilation systems to better protect the health of students, educators and workers. Through this bill, the “School & Small Business Energy Efficiency Stimulus Program” would provide resources ensuring heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems in schools are upgraded to improve the health and safety of the environment and to allow safe operations during the COVID-19 pandemic. The program would be funded through grants from the Societal Benefits Charge, an existing surcharge on the energy bills of New Jersey’s seven investor-owned electric public utilities and gas public utilities.

This legislation also requires carbon dioxide monitors be installed in every classroom. At NJSBA’s urging, the bill was amended to ensure the costs for this new mandate will be paid for through the grant program. The bill will now go back to the Senate to concur with Assembly amendments. NJSBA supports the bill.

District Website Accessibility  A-4856 requires internet websites and web services of school districts, charter schools, and renaissance schools to be accessible to persons with disabilities. The bill requires that no public school will make available to the enrolled students or to the public an internet website or web service unless the website or web service complies with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 Level AA or the most up-to-date version of the guidelines.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. While supporting the principles of access, NJSBA sought funding for this proposed new mandate.  The bill now heads to the state Senate for consideration.

Student Surveys  A-5597 permits school districts to administer anonymous, voluntary surveys regarding students’ use of alcohol, tobacco and drugs – among other behaviors that could harm their health and well-being. Parents/guardians will be notified at least two weeks prior to administration of the survey.  Information obtained through the survey would be submitted to the NJDOE and New Jersey Department of Health. The bill prohibits information from being used for marketing or other commercial purposes unrelated to student health. NJSBA has not taken a position, as it is permissive, but continues to monitor the bill.

Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee

The Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee also met on May 20 and advanced the following school-related measures:

Addressing School Nurse Shortage  A-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.

The bill may now go the full state Senate for a floor vote. If approved, the bill would need to return to the Assembly, which passed the measure last November, to concur with technical amendments made by the Senate before going to the governor.

Special Education Unit  S-2160 would create a special education unit within the Office of Administrative Law and require an annual report.  This bill would establish a unit within the Office of Administrative Law (OAL) dedicated to special education cases. The special education unit would consist of administrative law judges having expertise in special education law.  The number of administrative law judges in the unit would be proportional to the number and complexity of special education cases referred to the OAL.  Under the bill, all contested cases concerning special education law referred to the OAL would be assigned to and adjudicated by the administrative law judges in the special education unit. NJSBA supports the bill which now heads to the full Senate for consideration.

Teacher Residency Program  S-2833 establishes a teacher residency program with the goal of diversifying the state’s educator workforce.  The bill would offer stipends and provide participants with the education and field experience necessary to obtain a New Jersey certificate of eligibility with advance standing, a credential that allows an individual to seek and accept employment as a public school teacher. School districts would partner with accredited colleges to provide participants with the education and field experience needed to obtain the certificate. Participants would be provided an annual stipend for completing the combination of course and fieldwork. Under the bill, the program would be open to public high school students entering twelfth grade and non-certificated staff, including paraprofessionals, with a minimum of 60 college credits or an associate’s degree, who are employed in a public school.

The program would be divided into three stages, with stage one being geared towards high school students gaining an associate’s degree and paraprofessional certification. Qualified non-certificated staff would join in for stages two and three, as participants work towards a bachelor’s degree and teaching certification while participating in field work. As a condition of acceptance into the program, a participant would have to enter into an agreement with the NJDOE to maintain employment as a teaching staff member in NJ for four years following completion of the program. NJSBA supports the measure, which would be voluntary for school districts.