A small percentage of Milwaukee Public Schools special education students are returning to classrooms in three school buildings this week, for the first time since schools closed last March.
This comes after the State Department of Public Instruction has repeatedly ordered MPS, beginning in October, to serve some students with disabilities in-person. DPI threatened to withhold millions of dollars in funding if the district did not comply.
Now MPS is following the state’s orders, but families of special needs students say they are confused and disappointed by the plan.
Sarah Poeppel was hoping her six-year-old daughter, Lakelyn, would learn how to write her name this year, in kindergarten, at Fairview Elementary on the city’s southwest side.
But with virtual learning, Poeppel says Lakelyn’s academic progress is at a standstill. The six-year-old has Down syndrome, along with various medical disabilities.
“It’s a hot mess, honestly,” Poeppel says. “Getting her to sit still for more than five or 10 minutes is very sporadic. I don’t feel that she’s really learning or retaining that much right now.”
Last Wednesday, Poeppel says MPS told her that Lakelyn was invited to return for in-person learning this week. But it would only be two mornings per week for three hours, and she would have to go to a different school — the Wisconsin Conservatory of Lifelong Learning, which is downtown, with teachers she had never met before.
“I’m not comfortable with her taking a bus all the way to downtown,” she says. “Especially because it would only be for three hours a day. She would probably spend more time traveling than she would actually in school.”
So, Poeppel reluctantly turned down the offer for in-person learning.
“As a special needs parent, you’ve backed me into a corner where I feel like I have no other option but to say no,” she says. “... The [MPS] board is going to say we offered it and all these parents said, 'No' — clearly you didn’t want your kids back in school enough. And that's frustrating for me.”
Amy Mizialko, president of the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association, said Monday that “nowhere near 300 students” have opted in to the in-person learning offerings so far.
Because of coronavirus risks, Mizialko opposes the DPI mandate to educate some students with individualized education plans, or IEPs, in-person. MPS has said only teachers who volunteer will be tapped for this initial phase of in-person learning.
“I have not heard from any special education teacher or special education staff that wants to volunteer,” Mizialko said. “I’ve only spoken with individuals who are concerned … those same concerns people have been talking about in terms of being exposed to the virus and bringing the virus home to loved ones.”
Even as parents like Poeppel are reluctantly turning down the in-person learning option, other parents are eager to send their kids back, but haven’t been given the option.
That’s the case for Maleiris Rivera, the mother of a high schooler and a middle schooler with special needs. She says she would send them to any MPS school for in-person help.
“For me, it doesn’t matter,” Rivera says. “They need to be in school with a teacher that can support their needs.”
Rivera moved to Milwaukee from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. She says virtual learning has reminded her of that disaster.
“It’s like being in Puerto Rico with Hurricane Maria — lack of services and nobody cares,” Rivera says. “It’s sad.”
MPS serves approximately 15,000 students with special needs, but the district says it plans to return only about 300 to classrooms for now. Monica Murphy, managing attorney with Disability Right Wisconsin, says it is unclear how MPS is selecting students and where the number 300 came from.
“Not a clue,” Murphy says. “It just doesn’t seem reasonable to me. I think there’s a lot more than 300 kids who need in-person services.”
WUWM sent MPS repeated requests for an interview over the past two weeks, along with written questions. The district didn't respond by deadline.
In a recent school board meeting, MPS Director of Specialized Services Jennifer Mims Howell gave a general explanation of how MPS would choose students.
“The services we’re looking at are students who have therapies, as well as mandated services to be provided, as well as academics,” Mims Howell said. “We’re also looking at the progress the student made during the first semester.”
Murphy, the disability rights lawyer, is wondering why it took MPS five months to comply with DPI’s order to educate in-person students whose IEPs can’t be fulfilled through distance learning. A DPI spokesman said MPS is the only district in the state the department is aware of that hasn’t been doing any in-person education for high-needs students.
“There’s no sense of urgency, which just blows me away,” Murphy says. “At a district that long before the pandemic was struggling with kids’ achievement gaps and not getting the services they needed — to just be so laissez-faire about this just blows my mind.”
MPS has set tentative dates in April to return most students to classrooms. But school board members say that’s only a target, and it’s possible the district will remain virtual the entire year. Among other things, the school board is waiting to see how quickly teachers can get vaccinated.
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