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Javier Robles talks about the ways NJ can better serve people with disabilities during COVID-19. The NJ COVID-19 DAC has laid out a 23 point plan. NorthJersey.com

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The state Assembly gave final approval Thursday to a bill extending education services by one year for disabled students who saw critical programs frozen during the coronavirus pandemic. 

The proposal, which received a rare bipartisan vote in the chamber, needs only Gov. Phil Murphy's approval to become law.  

“It’s a great day. It validates the supports and services these young people have lacked and will now be able to access, said Mercedes Witowsky, executive director of the New Jersey Council on Developmental Disabilities. "It gives them hope and an option not to fall off that cliff,”

“Falling off a cliff” is how advocates and families of people with disabilities describe the transition to life after  21, when students "age out" of  education programs and find themselves with fewer therapy and work opportunities.

Schools try to ease the transition by teaching life skills and providing job training before state residents with developmental disabilities turn 21. The pandemic, however, eliminated or curtailed access for many of those programs over the last year, said families, educators and advocates who pushed for the legislation. 

The legislation would apply to students with disabilities who turn 21 during the 2020-2021 school year and require local boards of education to provide education and related services listed in individualized education programs during the 2021-2022 school year. 

Witowsky estimates about 700 students will be eligible. Parents who think their children could benefit from the extra year should reach out to their local school leaders now.

Maplewood’s Pam Kattouf explained why her son Justin needed the extension.

“The extra year would get him to where he would have been at graduation,” Kattouf said. Justin didn’t get to sample jobs or practice getting out into the community this school year. “First you have to make up what you lost, and then once that levels off, prepare him for an adult program,” she said.

Peg Kinsell, institutional policy director at the SPAN Parent Advocacy Network, heard similar worries from many parents and said the last year’s dearth of training would make life “really hard” for graduating students and their families. 

The disability community looked to compensate and lawmakers came up with two bills calling for the extension. Senate bill S3434, co-sponsored by state Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Sen. Dawn Addiego, was passed in March.

On Thursday, the state Assembly passed its own version, A5366, sponsored by Assemblywomen Pamela Lampitt of Voorhees and Englewood's Valerie Vainieri Huttle and Madison's Assemblyman John McKeon. The vote was unanimous, 72-0.

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“It has become clear that students have fallen behind as a result of this prolonged absence of in-person learning," Lampitt said in an email, noting that "among the most profoundly interrupted have been our students with special needs."

She said extending classes for another year will "ensure that these students receive the full education they need and deserve as they transition into the adult life.”

The bill will need to be signed into law quickly, said Witowsky. Parents and educators are already in the process of finishing next year’s education plans. 

Gene Myers is a reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: myers@northjersey.com 

Twitter: @myersgene  

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