Milwaukee Public Schools will bring back some special education students for in-person learning, after repeated warnings from the state and threats of financial sanctions.
The Department of Public Instruction has been urging MPS since October to provide in-person services for students whose individualized education plans, or IEPs, cannot be fulfilled with distance learning alone.
MPS put off in-person services for months, despite the instructions from DPI.
MPS Board President Larry Miller says the district was waiting for teachers to get vaccinated before returning to classrooms.
“You can’t social distance with the students that really need face-to-face instruction,” Miller said in an interview with WUWM. “We all have been looking at this, as a board and the administration, very carefully, because we understand the needs of these students. But we were not going to jeopardize the health and safety of everybody involved. So we told DPI, let’s get our folks vaccinated and then we can do some transition.”
Other large districts that have stayed virtual this year, including Madison and Racine, have been serving limited numbers of students with disabilities in person. DPI believes MPS is the only district not offering in-person services for students whose IEPs require them.
Monica Murphy, managing attorney with Disability Rights Wisconsin, told WUWM her group has been advocating for in-person education for special needs students in MPS.
“We are very much in favor of this and pushed DPI to write the original letter,” Murphy said. “There [are] some students, especially the most disabled students, who cannot benefit from virtual instruction.”
Now, DPI is forcing MPS’s hand. On Jan. 7, State Superintendent Carolyn Stanford Taylor told MPS to provide in-person education for certain students by Feb. 4 or risk losing state funding.
The DPI order came to light during a school board committee meeting Tuesday. MPS Superintendent Keith Posley proposed bringing a limited number of special education students back to three school buildings starting Feb. 8.
“There’s a number of things that we need to do to be 100% ready, but rest assured we will be ready on Feb. 8 to provide instruction,” Posley said.
Several school board members objected to the mandate from DPI. Miller said it will be difficult to get special education teachers even their first vaccine dose in time.
“We need time to keep everybody safe,” Miller said. “And I feel like the folks at DPI are not even considering that.”
The president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, Amy Mizialko, testified Tuesday against the DPI order.
“It’s very important to note that while DPI and Carolyn Stanford Taylor are happy to sacrifice the special education staff of this district, the MTEA will not go along with that plan,” Mizialko said.
WUWM requested interviews with MPS administration, MTEA and DPI. DPI declined. MPS and MTEA did not respond by deadline.
MPS is hoping to select teachers for in-person classes on a volunteer basis. Miller says at least 300 special education students are expected to return to buildings.
Whether other MPS students will go back in-person at all this school year remains to be seen. The board set tentative return dates in April, but they are dependent on vaccination and community infection rates.
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