Effective 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 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.
Monona Grove School District officials said they would bring some students with disabilities back to school buildings soon for in-person instruction, in light of the revised public health order.
Director of Student Services Christa Foster said the district would start by bringing 15 to 30 students back face-to-face.
A release on the district’s website said the district would also bring back students aged 18-21 who may need support or job coaching.
Foster said the school district hoped to begin seeing students in-person as early as this week. Administrators met Sept. 2 to discuss timelines and whether students would learn in cohorts or individually with teachers.
Students will mainly receive individual instruction or therapies from school staff, but there will be some small group work, of about two or three students at a time, Foster said. Most in-person instruction with students will be used to support their virtual learning, she added.
More students with disabilities and IEPs will be brought back for limited face-to-face instruction in coming weeks, Byrnes Kaiser said. Monona Grove has about 270 students in the district with disabilities, Foster said, and administrators are aiming to bring back about five to ten percent of that total in the first wave.
Monona Grove is going to take a gradual approach to bringing special education students back, starting with those who made “limited progress” on their goals last spring, the district’s website said. That may be because those students didn’t have access to virtual instruction or weren’t fully provided the special education services outlined in their IEPs, the website continued.
District officials have publicly said that virtual learning may be challenging for students with special needs. And after the Aug. 21 order was announced that closed in-person school to all students in grades three and up, Director of Communications and Community Engagement Katy Byrnes Kaiser said Monona Grove administrators advocated to the health department to allow in-person instruction for special education.
“There were some students for whom virtual learning does not work at all,” Byrnes Kaiser said. “We also have a legal obligation to serve students with IEPs and students with disabilities in a very specific way.”
Byrnes Kaiser said the idea to instruct higher-risk students in classrooms this fall, in a limited capacity, isn’t new. Prior to Aug. 21, Monona Grove was going to allow select students into school buildings for in-person services, Byrnes Kaiser said. That was part of the district’s fall 2020 plans, presented to the school board on Aug. 13.
McFarland School District Superintendent Andrew Briddell, meanwhile, said in an email on Sept. 5 that it “will begin offering in-person instruction to eligible students in grades 3-12 beginning the week of Sept. 8.”
Briddell said specific plans for each student will be drive by their Individual Education Plan or Section 504 Plan. ”We are prioritizing services for our highest-needs students to begin with, and we will continually reassess students’ needs as we move through the fall,” Briddell said.