With just weeks or even days left in the school year, Gov. Phil Murphy on Wednesday signed legislation that will offer an extra year of special education and related services to students who are turning 21, and traditionally aging out of the system, either this year or in the next two academic years through the spring of 2023.The measure, primarily sponsored by state Sen. Dawn Addiego, D-NJ, 8th, had stalled on Murphy's desk for close to two weeks over funding considerations.

But Murphy said during his COVID-19 briefing on Wednesday that federal American Rescue Plan funds would be used to cover the extension, a cost that could approach $600 million.

"So be it," Murphy said. "This is one of these things where we take the step regardless of the price tag, because it is absolutely, without question and hesitation, the right thing to do."

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There is no "magic wand" to ensure the individual needs of some 8,700 students are met statewide, according to Mercedes Witowsky, executive director of the New Jersey Council on Developmental Disabilities, but she agreed that extending these students' academic eligibility is invaluable.

"What it would cost in our system beyond 2021 is something that I'm not sure how we would have been able to respond to," Witowsky said.

The COVID pandemic created trauma at all levels, she said, but transitional services offered just prior to the graduation of a student with disabilities, like how to navigate transportation within a community, planning out work or volunteer opportunities, plus receiving various therapies, took a major hit beginning last spring.

So while this measure does not contain retroactive provisions for those who aged out as of the end of the 2019-20 school year, Witowsky said work continues behind the scenes to see what can be done about these students.

"We would suggest that families reach out to the educational advocates in our state to try and determine what might be possible," she said, adding, "For the students that graduate this year, a year probably won't be enough. But it is certainly an appropriate start toward what their future's going to look like."

It is critical to look past this year, Witowsky said, and extending the age-outs through 2022-23 is a "more reasonable" approach to combat the proverbial "falling off a cliff" many people with disabilities experience at age 21, even pre-COVID.

"We couldn't allow this year to pass where those students would move on without a plan, without appropriate access to the adult life services," she said.

Addiego, in a statement, thanked Murphy as well as the parents and advocates who pressed the governor to take action.

"Although (Wednesday)'s signing recognizes the end of a difficult legislative path, it pales in comparison to the fight the parents of these wonderful children tirelessly face every day," Addiego said.

Patrick Lavery is New Jersey 101.5's afternoon news anchor. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com.

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