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New Jersey will spend as much as $600 million to extend classes for thousands of students with disabilities whose learning was cut short by the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Phil Murphy said Wednesday.  

The state will tap federal coronavirus aid to fund an extra year of education for pupils set to age out of their local school districts this spring and the next two years, Murphy announced, after signing a bipartisan measure that sailed through the Legislature. 

As many as 8,700 students could benefit, said the governor, who faced a backlash from disability advocates in recent weeks when the bill seemed to stall on his desk. 

"This is a very specific, three-school-year reaction to the pandemic and the impact it has had on these extraordinary lives," the Democrat said at a news conference. "We recognize the pandemic has been especially hard on the roughly 8,700 students this will impact and who may not have had the full set of transitional skills and job training that they need for adulthood." 

Murphy outlined a far larger program than advocates had described in recent weeks. They had said the legislation, S-3434, would affect as many as 700 students set to age out this spring because they're turning 21, at an estimated cost of up to $11.1 million.

Mercedes Witowsky, executive director of the New Jersey Council on Developmental Disabilities, said her group's estimates aimed to reflect the number of students who it thought would take advantage of the opportunity, while the state's estimate includes all eligible students. Also, the council tallied only costs incurred for additional instruction and did not include baseline tuition costs. 

A spokesperson for Murphy said the governor's estimate included instructional and transportation costs as well as other expenses. 

Even in normal times, the transition out of school can be a rough experience. The disability community refers to it as “falling off a cliff.” But school closings and remote learning mandated by COVID-19 protocols made it that much harder for pupils to prepare over the past year.

Additional schooling will give students and families time to explore work, socialization and therapy programs for which they normally would be ineligible.

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Advocates and families lobbied hard for the extension, which the state Assembly and Senate approved unanimously this spring. But supporters said earlier this month that the measure was being held up by a dispute inside the Murphy administration over how to spend federal coronavirus aid. The governor's office would not discuss the delay.

Advocates said time was running out, with schools planning graduation ceremonies and crafting individual education plans, or IEPs, that would guide instruction for students with disabilities next year.   

One group, the Education Law Center, held teleconferences as recently as Wednesday morning advising parents of disabled students to reject diplomas and take legal action if the bill wasn’t signed. 

“A lot of students with disabilities missed out on essential services during the pandemic and need to have those services made up,” said Elizabeth Athos, an attorney at the center. 

Ridgewood’s Tim Kane, father of Jack Kane, who is on the autism spectrum, reached out to anyone he could think of, including the governor, for help.   

His son missed 150 days of in-person instruction out of what should have been 210 school days over the past school year. Still, he praised the effort his son’s teachers at the EPIC School for students with autism in Paramus put into teaching Jack. The family didn't relish the prospect of a legal fight.

“The relationship with the school is deeper than you would have had at a neuro-typical school,” Kane said. “You have been in the trenches with everybody at that school, who every day wants to do something to help Jack a bit more.” 

Jack turns 21 this week, and graduations are scheduled for next week. 

His son isn’t ready to move on. Kane is hoping teachers can help his son get back to where he was in 2019 and get him back to achieving his goals with “dignity.”  

“This extension would make a world of difference, because it would be a full year pounding away at the things that need to get done to improve the skills that are going to help him down the road,” Kane said.

Murphy's signing the bill into law means Kane won't have to take legal action against the school district that has served his son well since the age of 2. 

It's good news, but it came late in the game for the people who needed it, said Witowsky. The victory was tinged by frustration over the lobbying effort needed to secure Murphy's signature, she said.  

"It diverted families to spending time on this instead of transitions for the children," Witowsky said. "All of this was a diversion of the precious time people have in their lives. No one in powerful positions understands that. Yes, they are public servants working evenings and weekends, but they are not getting up and wiping puke and feces off the floor and walls." 

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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