Advocates Want More Time for High Schoolers ‘Aging Out’ to Graduate During Pandemic

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Over 100 advocacy groups are urging New York state to allow high school seniors struggling to graduate and are at risk of aging out this school year, a chance to earn their degree in the 2021-22 school year, according to a letter sent to New York State Department of Education officials earlier this month.

Normally, New York students can attend high school and work towards a degree until the end of the school year in which they turn 21. But advocates are calling for the state to grant 21-year-olds at risk of not earning their high school degree by September more time due to numerous disruptions to the academic year caused by the pandemic.

Apart from disruptions caused by forced school closures, the challenges of remote learning continue to be overwhelming for many students and their families especially for those without reliable internet access or who have struggled to get a laptop or iPad.

Last year, NYSED canceled multiple Regents exams in order to prevent students from traveling amid the pandemic and this year scrapped most of the standardized tests and uncoupled them from high school graduation requirements given the dearth of challenges students have faced with remote learning. But advocates argue the state needs to do more to allow as many students as possible to earn their degrees.

“This is a matter of basic fairness,” reads a letter from the group Advocates for Children to the NYSED Chancellor Lester Young and Board of Regents Commissioner Betty Rosa. “Students turning 21 during the 2020-21 school year should have as much time to complete this year’s coursework as their younger classmates. In the face of the incredible hardships caused by COVID-19, districts across the State have had to adjust to grading policies and timetables, including giving high schoolers additional time to complete coursework required for graduation. Many students need extra time.”

The small group of students who take longer than four years to earn their high school diploma is mostly made up of English Language Learners or students with disabilities and are disproportionally students of color.  Advocates for Children estimates that every year roughly 2,000 to 3,000 students across the state take six years to graduate high school.

“For many of these kids this has really been a lost year,” said Noah Gotbaum, a member of the citywide council for special education. Gotbaum’s 17-year-old son, who is on the autism spectrum, has had tremendous difficulty with remote learning, he says, and will most likely need a few extra years to make for lost learning during the pandemic. “All kids need social contact and especially kids with needs…they need contact not only with their peers but also with their teachers to receive services that just don’t translate over Zoom.”

In addition to extending the amount of time 21-year-old students have to earn their degree, advocates are also calling for Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature to pass a budget allowing schools to receive all available COVID-19 funding, in addition to state support, so that schools serving 21-year-old students can continue to do so. Many districts helping high schoolers over the age of 18 have not received funding during the pandemic, according to the Advocates for Children.

NYSED is currently “reviewing the issue and recognizes the impact the pandemic has had on some of the states’ most vulnerable students who will age out”, according to department officials.

This story first appeared on amNY.com.

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