Special education students can now learn in-person at school buildings in Dane County, under a revised coronavirus public health order.
Public Health Madison & Dane County on Aug. 21 had ordered all Dane County public and private school students in grades 3 through 12, including special education students, to start the year virtually due to the high local number of COVID-19 cases.
A Sept. 2 amendment to that order permits students in any grade with a disability, and/or an individualized education program (IEP), to learn in-person at a school building.
Per state statutes, such students may learn in-person “due to their unique needs,” a Public Health Madison & Dane County release said.
Public Health Madison & Dane County Communications Supervisor Sarah Mattes said in a subsequent email that the update was driven by a determination that “free appropriate public education is guaranteed under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.”
After discussion with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, “it became evident that some of these services for students with disabilities/IEPs cannot be provided virtually. As a result, we amended the order,” Mattes said.
Superintendents in Cambridge and Deerfield said they would begin returning special education students to their regular school buildings.
The Deerfield School Board voted in July to begin the school year virtually for all students. School was set to begin in Deerfield on Sept. 8 following a week of in-person and virtual conferences between parents, students and teachers.
In a Sept. 2 email, Superintendent Michelle Jensen said Deerfield’s plan for special education is now to “bring students in for academic or behavioral assistance or for therapy-related services based on their IEP goals. The needs of special education students vary greatly so we want to meet their needs in the safest means possible, and working in collaboration with the child and parents.”
She said that school district staff are “continuing to meet with parents regarding services for their individual child,” in advance of the start of classes.
Cambridge Superintendent Bernie Nikolay said in an email on Sept. 2 that 60 special education students in grades 3-12, who began the school year in-person at Cambridge High School on Sept. 1, would be taught in-person at their regular school buildings starting Sept. 8.
Taking advantage of its high school’s location in Jefferson County, where the public health department has recommended that special education students and students in sixth-grade and up start the year virtually, but has not issued any public health order on that, the Cambridge School Board voted on Aug. 25 to start those 60 special education students in-person at CHS.
The Cambridge school district is in a unique position, split by the Dane-Jefferson County line. Cambridge Elementary School, Nikolay Middle School and Koshkonong Trails Charter School are in Dane County, subject to its public health rules. The high school property in Jefferson County, meanwhile, is subject only to that county’s coronavirus public health guidance, which school district officials have said they are striving to adhere to but are not legally bound to follow.
Cambridge school board members acknowledged on Aug. 25 that their decision to bring elementary and middle school-aged special education students to the high school, where a team of special education teachers from across the district would work with them and high school special education students, intentionally circumvented the Aug. 21 Dane County order by moving them into a different county.
School board member Jim Womble said on Aug. 25 that the priority for placement in-person at the high school “should be on students that are of the highest risk. If we are going to do something like having classes at the high school, those are the students we should focus on.”
In recent weeks, Cambridge has repeatedly pivoted based on a succession of Public Health Madison & Dane County orders.
Until Aug. 21, Cambridge had a plan to start all students through grade five, including special education students, in-person on Sept. 1 at Cambridge Elementary School.
Nikolay Middle School and Cambridge High School students, including special education students, were going to learn virtually for a few weeks, with the potential for some small-group in-person check-ins, before phasing back to in-person learning beginning the third week of September.
And Koshkonong Trails Charter School, for students in grades 7-12, located at the district’s 82-acre school farm in the Town of Christiana, was going to start the year in-person.
The Aug. 21 order upended much of that plan. The Sept. 2 revised order upended it again, moving middle and elementary school special education students back to their regular buildings after just one week of classes at CHS.