Beginning Wednesday, Sept. 2, special education students may learn in-person at school buildings in Dane County, following the release of 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.

The recent 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.


How is the DeForest Area School District affected?

Sara Totten, director of Student Services, said, “The amendment allows us to proceed with our original phase in plan. Prior to the amendment, we wouldn’t have been allowed to phase in students past second grade.”

There’s still work to be done.

“We are continuing to work on finalizing schedules and transportation for students that need it,” said Totten. “We are hopeful that guidance from Dane County Health maintains so we can continue with our phase in plans.”

Those plans are designed so that the district’s “most fragile learners are able to receive the best support possible.” At the same time, school officials are mindful of protecting the safety and health of staff and students.

Continuity of service is a point of emphasis for the district for special education students, as is reducing gaps in their education and enhancing their social emotional and mental health and well-being.

In bringing back special education students, the district plans to use cohorts to keep the same groups of students together. In case a child contracts coronavirus, it would help with contact tracing.

Groups will be limited in size, appropriate personal protection equipment will be worn and there will be an emphasis on following safety protocols – such as self-screening for staff and students and temperature screenings upon arrival at school. Throughout buildings, use of spaces will be expanded. Virtual instruction is expected to be used the first two weeks, as students get used to wearing masks and how school will look.

In taking a phased approach, the first phase will work with two groups of students. One includes early childhood, Pre-kindergarten and/or 4-year-old kindergarten students who receive early childhood special education and/or speech services.

The second will consist of those who 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.

Totten has said that the district will start phasing in those with the highest needs, with Phase 1 anticipated to run four to six weeks and Phase 2 opening up in-person instruction to students with disabilities up to fourth grade. There will be support for virtual learning from educational assistants who are aligned with student cohorts.

Phase 3 will bring in students with disabilities up to eighth grade. The plan for high school special education students is to work with them in a hybrid approach that mixes virtual and in-person learning when circumstances allow, with virtual learning taking place at the start.

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