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Late last night, the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) Board of Directors voted 7-2 in favor of a three-phase reopening plan that will begin the 2020-2021 school year with 100 percent virtual learning. I woke up to this news and, while I am no longer an MPS family (more on that in a bit), I am a resident and taxpaying citizen, and I have thoughts.
A Choice Based on Fear, Not Logic
The decision to keep schools closed, which they have been since March, is not based on science or reason. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, there have been zero deaths among children ages 0-19. Zero. Only 2% of deaths occurred in persons aged 20-39. A majority of deaths were in groups aged 70+. As for transmission of COVID-19, the American Academy of Pediatrics (which also said children should be physically present in schools this fall) notes that children are not the primary spreaders of the disease.
Yet MPS has decided it knows better than those statistics, and better than even the American Academy of Pediatrics, and will not have children present in the classroom when school begins. They even know better than UNICEF, apparently, which argues that the indirect effects of an outbreak are often worse than the outbreak itself.
Their metric for reopening schools? Zero new cases in the Milwaukee metro area…for two consecutive weeks. Never mind that deaths are declining and that only 10% of cases require hospitalization (so as of yesterday’s 900 confirmed cases, nine would need hospitalization). Like other places, the spike in cases came not after reopening businesses but after the protests and riots related to the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
Here are some other facts about MPS:
More than 50% of residents in Milwaukee live at or below the poverty level.
In December, the board approved an $87 million referendum to “expand and sustain educational programs.” That referendum was on the Apr 7 ballot and passed. (After MPS had been shut down and was not providing any education services.)
MPS has 75,081 students enrolled and of those, 20% — one in five — is a special education student. That is 15,016 students who require some form of special education. Each of those 15,016 students is protected by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal law that outlines what states need to do to meet the needs of students. IDEA allows states some latitude, but prohibits them from offering fewer services than the federal law. Under IDEA, states must:
- Offer free, appropriate public education and the least restrictive environment to students with special education needs.
- Students are required to have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), and gives schools 60 days to complete an evaluation. The details for IEPs — including the evaluation, the required annual re-evaluation meeting, and the services the IEP outlines — are numerous.
- IDEA lays out guidelines for early intervention of kids with developmental delays.
- IDEA provides for special education services up to the age of 21, if required.
- IDEA provides guidelines for after-high school transitioning, which must begin at the age of 16.
I taught special education for almost two years. While it wasn’t the career for me, I can tell you that my experience is enough to know not one of those 15,016 special education students in MPS will receive the education they are entitled to via virtual learning. Many have behavioral issues, including Autism Spectrum Disorder, that require not only predictable schedules but consistency in learning and the classroom environment, as well as specialized tools to communicate or facilitate learning (think special chairs or sensory-limiting items like headphones).
I emphasized “least restrictive environment” above because, in a district with a 50%+ poverty rate, the home environment is, in fact, restrictive. They do not have access to the tools or professionals who can educate them properly. The coordination required to obtain this equipment for parents is extensive, and requires actual buy-in from the parents. I can tell you from personal experience also, you’ll have a difficult time with that. During the first month of my teaching career, I had a parent threaten to “beat my ass” when I called to discuss ways we could improve her child’s learning because I was “harming her baby.” That is not the exception to the rule, alas.
MPS is a district that has massive amounts of poverty. These are homes that will not have access to reliable Internet, nor the technology needed to facilitate online learning, nor the adults willing to put in the time to essentially homeschool their children. Parents will have to choose between a paycheck and either homeschooling their children, or spending money to put their children in daycare facilities (and if they can go to daycare, why can’t they go to school?) that are ill-equipped to assist non-special education students with virtual learning.
IDEA was put into place to undo the days when children with special education were not integrated into public schools; they were either sent to special institutions or, in some cases, not educated at all. The quality and availability of this education varied greatly until federal legislation created more uniform policies. At the end of the day, IDEA is clear: students with special education needs are entitled to the same quality of education and access to education as their regular education peers. Virtual learning is denying them that education.
With this decision, MPS has absolutely violated the civil rights of 15,000 students and countless districts around the country are following suit. Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have urged the opening of public schools, backed by clear science and common sense, and if they want to play hardball with the districts who refuse to reopen schools, they can use the violation of IDEA as a starting point for leveraging districts into reopening. They owe it to this generation of children not to let them fall through the cracks during a time of irrational panic and hysteria.Published in