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Pennsylvania Act 66 will allow students to repeat a grade after pandemic learning loss

Every student in Pennsylvania is eligible to retake a degree to make up for learning losses specific to COVID-19, but families who wish to exercise this right will need to move quickly.

The legislation signed by Governor Tom Wolfe last week gives parents until July 15 to notify schools of their intent to have their children take advantage of this option. The new law, known as Law 66, gives students with disabilities who turned 21 during the 2020-21 school year the opportunity to stay for another year.

Pennsylvania is one of a number of states that have passed such laws.

The pandemic sped learning for public schools across Pennsylvania; In most areas, children attend school almost for most of the year. Some kids, like 10th through 12th graders in Philadelphia and students in the Southeast Delco School District, never set foot in a classroom.

Teachers have done their best to adapt, but there will be gaps in the fall, say experts, who also generally agree that schools should only send students back to class in rare cases.

She said Philadelphia’s mother’s son Heidi Allen fits the bill. The boy, who has multiple disabilities, was a kindergarten child in the Philadelphia School District last school year. It’s been tough getting him to sit in an online school, let alone keep the materials for a crucial school year.

“The hypothetical just didn’t work, he didn’t really have a year in nursery – he lost a school year,” Allen said. “It wasn’t anyone’s fault, but it happened, and my baby wouldn’t be the two-year-old in one year.”

Allen said the law was a godsend to her family and others.

“This can really help a lot of people,” she said.

Timing is tough – families only have a week to decide, and many don’t know the opportunity exists. Margie Wakelin, an attorney with the Education Law Center, said advocates are trying to spread the word and answer questions from people trying to expedite the new law.

“It’s almost a berserk level of anxiety” due to the narrow shift and long-term effects, Wakelin said.

In many cases, children will be eligible for support designed to compensate them that have been paid out with billions of federal COVID-19 relief funds, but retention is also a possibility.

“Whether retention is the right choice for students in order to address the loss of educational opportunity over the past year is a bigger question and we really caution families to consider it,” Wakelin said.

Serita Powers of West Philadelphia is seriously considering. Her three girls have special needs and struggle to different degrees with a hypothetical year in a mostly Philadelphia school district, but the calculus is different for each of them.

Madison, who just finished sixth grade, moves on to seventh as scheduled.

“She said, ‘Please don’t stop me,'” Powers said. “It would be negative for her.”

Georgia, a fourth grader who is nonverbal, will definitely repeat.

“Is she really ready with the skills to go into the middle school building when she’s lost nearly a year and a half from school? I feel like we’re going to throw her into a storm, and it makes sense to hold her back,” Powers said.

Powers and her husband haven’t decided what’s best for Logan, the youngest of them all, who just finished second grade. Powers said she lost the skills, but “I think she can catch up easily.”

For now, Powers plans to send Logan the retention form, even if she changes her mind before school starts. Advocates say keeping the right is a good plan for parents who aren’t yet sure what to do.

Kimberly Caputo, an attorney who represents families in special education cases, is concerned about sharing too little information about the law, particularly the ruling that gives older students with disabilities an extra year of study.

“This is a fragile and needy group,” Caputo said. “Another year to learn how to operate an electric wheelchair is a really precious year. Another year to get three more sentences on your communication device is a really valuable year.”

Maureen Fratantoni wishes she had more notice of the law. Her son James, who has autism, is 21 years old and is a Philadelphia School District graduate. He got his diploma last month.

“I think James would have benefited from some additional educational support, as well as the life skills to live independently,” said Fratantoni, who lives in South Philadelphia.

Now, James is interviewing for a job with the Eagles and Fratantoni is trying to navigate his application for support across the state. She will not apply for James’ additional school year but wishes the option would be better publicized to others.

Anna Bering, co-founder of the Chinatown Disability Advocacy Project, is reaching out in every way she can think of to inform families of their options. Many schools and districts have not yet alerted families to their rights.

“Ninety-nine percent of Philadelphia families would not know about this,” Bering said. “This new law could benefit many students, not just students with special needs.”

Philadelphia School District officials did not return calls for comment.

New families in the US faced challenges as they struggled to navigate an unfamiliar school system and discover new online platforms without face-to-face access to staff who spoke their language.

“There are students who simply haven’t logged in all year and don’t have reliable internet, and what I and other advocates are concerned about is moving them around without making sure they have the skills and knowledge they need to keep going,” Bering said.

Parents who want to send their children back for a class or have children with special needs turn 21 to stay in school for an additional year must submit the form on the state’s website to their child’s school, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

If parents miss the deadline, it’s up to the school or district to figure out their next steps, according to the state.

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations that produce Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and moving the city toward economic justice. See all our reports at breakinphilly.org.

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