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After pandemic disrupted school, new law allows students with disabilities to finish academic year and ‘make up for lost time’

Pritzker signed the legislation at the Southside Occupational Academy High School and said they help the state align “the law with our values.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs two pieces of legislation into law — aiming to help students with disabilities — during a news conference Wednesday at Southside Occupational Academy High School.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed two pieces of legislation to help students with disabilities during a ceremony Wednesday at Southside Occupational Academy High School.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Students with special needs who turn 22 while in school will be able to finish the academic year under legislation signed into law Wednesday by Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

Pritzker signed the two bills at the Southside Occupational Academy High School and said they will help the state align “the law with our values.”

“I strongly believe that a core principle of governance is ensuring that our laws are kind to the people that they’re meant to serve,” Pritzker said. “After all, our laws are an expression of our values, and there’s nothing kind about taking a student with disabilities out of the classroom ... just because they turned another day older.

“It doesn’t happen to general education students, and it shouldn’t happen to our students with special needs either. And in Illinois that shouldn’t ever happen again as a result of what we do here today.”

The new laws will allow students whose 22nd birthday occurs during the school year to be eligible for special education services through the end of the academic year, according to the language of one of the bills the governor signed.

Up until now, students with disabilities were only eligible for services until the day before their 22nd birthday.

The other bill allows students with disabilities who turned 22 during the pandemic — when in-person learning was interrupted — to return to school in the coming school year to “make up for lost time,” Pritzker said.

State Rep. Suzanne Ness (left) holds one piece of legislation, while student Matt O’Loughlin holds the other, shortly after Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed the two bills into law — aiming to help students with disabilities — during a news conference Wednesday morning at Southside Occupational Academy High School.
State Rep. Suzanne Ness, left, holds one piece of legislation while student Matt O’Loughlin holds the other shortly after Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed the bills into law.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Joshua Long, principal at Southside Occupational Academy, said Illinois ranks 44th in the nation for funding for programs aimed at helping adults with disabilities.

“The bills that are being signed today are a huge step in the right direction,” Long said. “Students who’ve aged out over the pandemic will be eligible for additional school support, and our students, and all the other students with disabilities across the state of Illinois, will now graduate at the end of the year just like every other general education peer.”

The bill signing offered some relief for moms such as Kelli Jones.

“The future can sometimes be a very scary thought,” Jones said. “Many things have happened this year that would make one question the future. I struggled to find the appropriate words to describe what it feels like to know one part of my daughter’s future.

“I’m thankful, I’m proud and I’m delighted that today the governor of the great state of Illinois is signing a bill into law that guarantees my daughter, and the other beautiful students like her, the right to an educational future that is not cut short, but instead, furthered and allowed to flourish.”

Students and parents at Southside Occupational Academy High School applaud as Gov. J.B. Pritzker discusses two pieces of legislation aimed at helping students with disabilities, during a news conference Wednesday morning at the South Side school.
Students and parents at Southside Occupational Academy High School applaud Wednesday as Gov. J.B. Pritzker talks about two pieces of legislation aimed at helping students with disabilities.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times