While most DeForest Area School District students will start the 2020-21 school year learning virtually, it’ll be different for some special education students.
The goal is to phase in in-person instruction – still voluntary for families of such students at this point – for those with the greatest needs, even though other students will be undergoing virtual instruction.
It’s a fluid situation, however, as Sara Totten, director of student services, cautions that plans are still in draft form. Totten said they are subject to Dane County Public Health restrictions regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and any possible changes to them.
There are a couple of sticking points.
“Right now, scheduling and spaces,” said Totten. “We want to be able to meet the needs of kids and meet Dane County guidelines.”
The plan aims to ensure that the district’s “most fragile learners are able to receive the best support possible,” while also protecting the safety and health of staff and students.
The district wants to provide a continuity of service for those students, while reducing gaps in their education and enhancing their social emotional and mental health and well-being.
Precautions will be taken. The district wants to use cohorts as much as possible, to keep the same groups of students together.
Sizes of groups will be limited, with wearing appropriate personal protection equipment and following safety protocols a top priority. Such measures include self-screening for staff and students and temperature screening upon arrival at school buildings.
Use of spaces throughout the buildings will be expanded.
The first two weeks will consist of virtual instruction, with students practicing wearing masks and getting used to what school will look like.
The district is taking a phased approach. Phase 1 will involve two groups of students. The first includes early childhood, Pre-kindergarten and/or 4-year-old kindergarten students who receive early childhood special education and/or speech services.
The second group will meet two of the following criteria: they receive direct instruction from an occupational therapist or physical therapist; they receive direct instruction in language from a speech language pathologist; data from the spring 2020 term demonstrates regression in their individualized education program (IEP); they get instruction based on the Essential Elements; or they receive the majority of their instruction – 60 percent or more – in the special education environment.
“We’ll start by phasing in those with the highest level of needs,” said Totten.
Totten said that when virtual learning took place this spring districtwide, results were varied for special education students – just as it was for everybody, she added. It was tricky, she said, to keep younger students onscreen if someone wasn’t around.
“For some students it was effective, and for some it wasn’t,” said Totten.
Totten explained that virtual learning was especially challenging for students receiving occupational and physical therapy.
“We did a lot of consultation with families,” said Totten.
Transportation logistics still need to be worked out. Families of Phase 1 students will be surveyed to see who needs to be transported to school.
Phase 1 will run four to six weeks. The next phase, Phase 2, will open up in-person instruction to students with disabilities up to fourth grade. Educational assistant support will be provided for virtual learning, as educational assistants will be aligned with student cohorts.
Then comes Phase 3, which will bring in students with disabilities up to eighth grade.
As for high school special education students, they will fit into a hybrid approach that mixes virtual and in-person learning when circumstances allow the district to implement it. To start with, those students will be in virtual learning mode at this point, according to Totten.
Totten said instruction needs to be compliant with students’ IEPs. She also said that this week, staff will be getting feedback on possible tweaks to the phase-in plan, and then parents will be surveyed to see if their kids meet Phase 1 criteria.
The district is also exploring the possibility of bringing in other small groups of students outside of special education and hopes to be able to transition to the hybrid model to provide additional in-person access, as county metrics and public health guidance permits.