NY allows extra year for students who 'age out' during pandemic. Not all districts agree

“Through no fault of their own, many of these students risk losing the opportunity to earn a high school diploma when they age out of the system at the end of the. . . school year,” state official.

Nancy Cutler
Rockland/Westchester Journal News

Tyler Mason just turned 21. A student in Carmel High School's PACE program for students with cognitive and developmental disabilities, he would be due to graduate in June with his peers — if this had been a normal school year.

But it's not a normal year and Tyler, who is autistic, missed out on key educational experiences and life-skills training while he's been learning remotely since March 2020.

So when Stacy Reed Mason, Tyler's mother, heard from the school district that Tyler could stay another year, thanks to a guidance issued by the New York State Department of Education, she "was so relieved and so happy."

But, Mason quickly added, "It’s not the same for other districts.”

Tyler Mason, 21, a special needs student, is pictured with his mother Stacy at their home in Kent, April 30, 2021. He would have graduated in June, but the state Education Department issued a guidance that encourages school districts to extend education for kids with developmental disabilities, who age out for up to another year because of the pandemic.

Jenn Hildreth's son, Tyler,  is also autistic and also aging out of the public education system because he turns 21 in June. They live in the Port Jefferson School District and he's attended programs at the Eastern Suffolk BOCES since he was around 6. She was also hoping for another year to prepare her son to transition into the proper setting.

But so far, Hildreth said, her district has not agreed.

Jodi Cahill, director of special education for the Port Jefferson School District, said last week that the district had no comment on the guidance.

Tyler Hildreth turns 21 on June 7, 2021, so he is aging out of the public education system. His mom, Jenn Hildreth, wants Port Jefferson school district  to follow recent New York Education Department guidelines that allow an extension of school for students with disabilities who "age out" during the pandemic.

The SED guidance, issued April 13, encourages schools to extend education options for certain students who “aged out” of school during the pandemic. Federal and state law provides students who have not received a high school diploma the ability to attend the public schools in their district until age 21.

“Through no fault of their own, many of these students now risk losing the opportunity to earn a high school diploma when they age out of the system at the end of the 2020-2021-school year,” NYSED Senior Deputy Commissioner for Education Policy John L. D’Agati said in a letter to school administrators about the guidance.

Best high schools:Did yours make the top 100 in NY?

Remote learning:One family sees spring as the light at the end of the tunnel

“That is an unfair and unjust result for our students who can least afford to lose this life-changing opportunity to earn a diploma, credential or endorsement,” the guidance states.

The state's guidance covers students with disabilities, English language learners, economically disadvantaged students and those who have experienced homelessness.

The state supports extending services as needed, including summer school or up to another full academic year.

The SED guidance is just that — guidance. But a bill in the state Legislature would make the school extension for students with disabilities required. And it would extend to age 23. The legislation, sponsored by Assemblyman Tom Abinanti and Sen. Peter Harckham, remains in committee in both chambers. 

No post-school plan

Stacy Reed Mason understands the intricacies of creating a transitional plan for a student aging out of school. She's a social worker who is the Hudson Valley regional liaison for LIFEPlan CCO NY, which helps coordinate programs and services for people with developmental disabilities. Her older son, Trevor, is 23 and also on the autism spectrum. 

Tyler Mason, 21, a special needs student, shoots some hoops with his mother Stacy at their home in Kent, April 30, 2021. He would have graduated in June, but the state Education Department issued a guidance that encourages school districts to extend education for kids with developmental disabilities, who age out for up to another year because of the pandemic.

For Tyler Mason, remote learning has worked in some ways. But, Stacy Mason said, it could not fulfill important learning opportunities. "He was supposed to have a work experience this year, which he didn’t have," Mason said. "I would really like to see him have an opportunity like that so I could get a sense of his ability in the work realm for his adult life." 

Deported:Congressman calls Rockland man a symbol of 'chaotic' immigration system

Carmel also has after-school Special Olympics programs for students, and Tyler Mason loves that, his mother said.

Stacy Reed Mason said the extra year will provide assurances that Tyler Mason is prepared and supported as he enters the next phase of his life.

That's exactly what Jenn Hildreth wants for her Tyler.

Last spring, when schools went to all-remote learning, Tyler Hildreth couldn't participate; the BOCES program sent home learning packets — he can read simple sentences and do some addition. Jenn Hildreth said she kept Tyler engaged by taking long daily walks. 

While he's back to school in-person, Hildreth said there's no post-school transitional plan for her son, who she said is very sweet but profoundly autistic with a lack of safety awareness.

Jenn Hildreth said she continues to discuss SED's guidance and secure another year of education for her son.

She said she was taken aback by the pushback. Unlike many parents of children with disabilities, Jenn Hildreth said that her district has been great about services throughout Tyler's education.

"The feeling that I get is that they are on the run and now they are frantically trying to place him just to place him," Jenn Hildreth said, instead of spending the time, post-pandemic, to prepare him for adulthood.

Highly individualized needs

For students with disabilities, many of whom have lost key supports and struggled with remote learning, educators had already had discussions about "compensatory education," said Dr. Amy Albers, assistant superintendent for student services at Rockland BOCES, "for students who could not achieve their goals before hitting the age cutoff."

So when SED issued its guidance, districts shouldn't have been surprised.

Regional BOCES serve local districts, and the students' school districts pay for the educational services. Therefore, any decision on extending a student's education is up to the home district.

Districts could have their own programs for students with disabilities, or send them to private programs or another district if the home district doesn't have what a student needs, or use a BOCES program.

Students with disabilities have highly individualized needs, Albers said. For some, the SED guidance isn’t relevant because students have stayed on track and have a “next step” in place. For students with developmental disabilities, that could include college, a job training program or a residential or day habilitation setting. 

“Intensive conversations are particularly around children who may not necessarily have their adult placement secured,” Albers said. 

Even for that group, Albers said, additional education needs vary.

“There could be a need to come for a summer to have more time to do transition plan.” Albers said. “They may end up spending an additional year.”

Anyone who continues in a Rockland BOCES program won't take the place of another younger student who needs that program, Albers said. "We aren’t going to not support learners because we need to have students who need to stay longer."

Albers said she could not gauge how many students this may impact within BOCES. "It’s too new to really know exactly where people are going to end up," she said, "because the conversations have just begun."

But decisions need to be made. "It’s eight weeks from now, where are we at?"

Nancy Cutler writes about People & Policy. Click here for her latest stories. Follow her on Twitter at @nancyrockland