Updated 12:06 p.m.
Milwaukee Public Schools is required by the state to resume in-person instruction for some students with disabilities, starting in early February.
The Department of Public Instruction sent three letters to MPS, in October, December and January, ordering the district to resume in-person services and education for certain students with disabilities. In the first letter, dated Oct. 16, State Superintendent Carolyn Stanford Taylor explained that federal and state special education laws still apply during the pandemic.
"Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) ... school districts must provide each eligible student with a free appropriate public education by providing specially designed instruction and related services, as determined and documented by the student's Individualized Education Program (IEP) team," Stanford Taylor wrote.
Stanford Taylor said some students with disabilities are not able to receive a "free appropriate public education" through distance learning, and that MPS must provide in-person services for those students.
MPS apparently did not take action, because Stanford Taylor sent another letter Dec. 11, saying DPI would withhold funding from the district if it did not provide in-person services for students whose IEPs require it.
Then in a letter dated Jan. 7, Stanford Taylor said DPI would grant an extension requested by MPS, but that the district must provide in-person education to certain students by Feb. 4.
DPI spokesman Chris Bucher told WUWM that no other district besides MPS has received such an order. "To our knowledge, all other districts have provided some in-person services," Bucher said.
This DPI order came to light during a virtual MPS board committee meeting Tuesday, during a discussion about the district's reopening plan. The board committee voted to approve a plan that would bring around 300 students with disabilities back in-person to three school buildings, starting Feb. 8.
“These students who require in-person instruction along with virtual learning to receive a free, appropriate public education, will be selected through the IEP process,” said MPS Director of Specialized Services Jennifer Mims Howell. “Parents are involved in this process, therefore they also have input into the needs of their students.”
MPS Board members have been reluctant to resume in-person classes because of coronavirus concerns. Several expressed frustration with the DPI mandate.
“I just find it truly appalling that there’s that disregard given to the safety, health and well-being of staff, students and families,” said board member Erika Siemsen.
The MPS board wants community infection rates to be low, and vaccinations to be widespread, before resuming in-person instruction.
On Tuesday, the board set a goal of phasing the general student population back into classrooms in April, starting with younger grades. The hope is that teachers would be vaccinated against COVID by then. State vaccine supply is so limited that officials say educators might not start getting shots until March.
Under the back-to-school proposal, students in grades PreK-2 would phase back into classrooms on April 12, students in grades 3-8 on April 19, and students in grades 9-12 on April 26.
But some school board members cast doubt on whether the April timeline was feasible.
“I would prefer we complete the whole semester virtually,” said board member Tony Baez. “We’re here first to protect our students and staff.”
There are strong opinions on both sides of the MPS reopening debate. Dozens of people testified at Tuesday’s meeting.
“I supported a virtual start to school, but I cannot support a virtual year of school,” said Jenny Weiss, one of many parents who urged a return to in-person classes.
Teachers testified that they feel unsafe going back into classrooms. The Milwaukee Teachers Education Association is pushing the district to stay virtual.
“Please know that I would give almost anything to teach in person again,” teacher Bridget Spoerri said. “But I will not give my life, or the life of my medically fragile husband.”
The CDC issued new guidance Tuesday urging schools to reopen, but with strict mitigation measures.
The MPS board will meet again in March to decide whether to resume in-person teaching for most students in April. Meanwhile, students with disabilities will start returning to classrooms according to the DPI directive.
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