K-12 Education and COVID-19 – Part III – Special Education


Throughout the 1960s school districts had the right to choose whether to participate in special education incentive programs. In 1965, schools began receiving federal monies for public education through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. One year later, an amendment to the Act made funds available for students with disabilities. In 1973, part of the Rehabilitation Act said a person with a disability cannot be excluded or denied benefit from any program or activity that receives federal funds. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 added schools, requiring compliance from schools receiving federal funds.

An estimated 8 million students with disabilities were being denied access to a full education as late as 1975, until President Ford signed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, which today is known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This is the start of the individualized education program (IEP) for students.

One failure of the All Handicapped Children Act was it provided access to education programming for students, but it did not require what degree students needed to be educated to. That change came in 1982 with the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Board of Education of Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley. The case said students who qualify for special education services must be granted programming that meets their unique educational needs, and the program must enable students to benefit from that instruction. Amendments to IDEA in 1997 changed the direction of special education by shifting the focus from access to education to providing meaningful and measurable programs for students with disabilities. This shift, often referred to as the inclusion movement, helped educators move from pulling students from the general classroom to providing a general education with supplementary aides and services. Additional amendments to IDEA in 2004 provided the opportunity for alternative models like response to interventions (RTI), which provided that instead of sending students off to separate classrooms, learning gaps would be identified early and addressed before they could slow a students progress. This shift moved the focus of education for students with disabilities away from procedure towards goal-oriented results for students. According to a 2006 report from the U.S. Department of Education, close to 95% of students with disabilities are educated in general education schools, with 75% of those students receiving either full inclusion or a combination of inclusion and separate out-of-class resources.


The Wisconsin Department of Public Instructions has developed eligibility criteria worksheets for each of the identified disability areas:

According to DPI data, approximately 13-14% of students enrolled in Wisconsin schools are students with disabilities.

Hamilton School District

Paul Mielke, Superintendent, and John Peterson, Special Education Director, talked with The Wheeler Report about Special Education in their districts and the impacts of Covid-19. The Hamilton School District has 4,692 students, 500 of which are students with disabilities. Peterson said prior to the Covid-19 closure of schools the goals for the d a was a general education. That didn’t change after Covid-19, the priority was still the education of the student. Peterson said the special education teachers are trained in interventions, aiming to help students stay on top of their core instruction, while adding services in addition to their general education to help in areas where the student needs additional assistance. For some students, like those with social/emotional/behavioral challenges, it is teaching them proper skills and responses to situations. For some students, with intellectual disabilities, the additional education can be learning life skills and vocational needs. Some students receive speech and language services, physical therapy, occupational therapy, or services for hearing or visual impairments. Peterson highlighted the importance of involvement and communication with parents for students with special needs. Discussing the collaborative effort between families, students and the school to review the IEP, make changes as needed, and always looking to ensure the student is making progress.

Mielke said when it became obvious the school would be closing the administration told staff to prepare for a minimum of three weeks. To ensure students with special needs were prepared for closure, members of the staff were assigned to particular students with challenges to check on the students and ensure they were coping with the shutdown. That meant staff may have been reassigned from their typical job assignments to ensure those students had a strong safety net. When the shutdown started the school wanted to make sure they had their involvement with families correct and implemented the CCC protocol – Communication, Collaboration, and Compassion. The teachers and the parents reviewed the IEPs for the students and worked to translate the goals to a virtual world. Some goals translated well, others did not.

Peterson said sending students home with technology almost became the students helping the parents. Students were familiar with the technology and the learning platforms while the parents were learning as they went sometimes. The teachers worked to ensure they were not using too many platforms at once. They worked to not overwhelm students or parents with learning several new software programs and worked to be as consistent as possible. While some parents were able to work at home, and able to help students with school work, special education teachers found they needed to be flexible with timing, and provided assistance whenever they could, even at odd hours and into the night. Mielke said some teachers who are 80% by contract with the school district have been working 100% to support the students and their families.

The Hamilton school district is able to provide seven-week intervention camps to students this summer. Normally their summer program would be only four weeks, but this year they are providing seven weeks focused on targeted skills. They are offering intervention camps in both mathematics and reading. Mielke said the classes are small and that means more targeted time for the teachers with students.

As with other school districts, Mielke and Peterson are looking towards fall and getting students back into the classrooms but have concerns and questions about the proposed gating criteria. Mielke said there are five different task forces meeting over the next month to talk about the different needs. Mielke said they are working with the Waukesha County Public Health Department, discussing recommendations, and trying to work through issues like busing, students in the hallways, PPE, virtual options, etc.

One concern for Mielke for the upcoming school year is substitute teachers and bus drivers. Both of those groups tend to be older people who are often already retired. Mielke said substitute teachers can often be difficult to fill but believes at some point there will be a need to fill in for teachers who are sick or quarantined or have family emergency. Long term substitutes could be harder to fill.

Appleton School District

Dr. Judy Baseman, Superintendent, and Polly Vanden Boogaard, Assistant Superintendent for Student Services, also took the time to talk with The Wheeler Report about the impact of Covid-19 on their students with special needs.

The Appleton School District has slightly over 16,000 students, with 2,686 (16.8%) students with special needs. Like Hamilton, Appleton students with special needs are in general classrooms receiving supplemental aids and services in addition to their regular classroom. A key part of special education services is working with the families to find the balance between providing additional services and being able to participate in activities and classes like art, music, and physical education. Vanden Boogaard said those are difficult conversations with the students and the families but emphasized the importance of collaborative IEP meetings. Vanden Boogaard said additional services for students may be age dependent since the focus for high school students can be on preparing for transition to post secondary and new activities, while early learners focus can often be getting them into routines. She said teachers worked with parents to transition some of those activities to the home for an easier transition for kids. She said things like having a visual routine calendar at home like they had in the classroom so students were able to understand and visualize their day helped them to transition.

When the school district prepared for the Covid-19 shutdown, the special education focus from Day 1 was delivering services. Staff were directed to go through IEPs to make sure the students were making progress. Teachers were creative in finding ways to get needed materials to families, some teachers provided virtual opportunities, some teachers made video recordings that families and students could access when it was convenient for them, some teachers made themselves available in the evening. Vanden Boogaard said the district set themselves up to meet IEP goals and worked with families to achieve those goals. Vanden Boogaard emphasized that the families have been great partners in the transition and discussed the challenges families have had with working at home, or continuing to work, and find the additional time for the extra work with their children.

Baseman said the district learned about the importance of collaboration during the shutdown, saying they knew collaboration was important, but the shutdown heightened the need for intentional working relationships and collaboration between teachers, staff and families was crucial.

Baseman said the district already provided Chromebooks for all students grade 7-12, and focused on bringing equity to the students by getting Chromebooks, hotpots and service connection for families that did not have access or means to get access on their own.

Vander Boogaard said one of the most difficult challenges was young learners. She described how some students have difficulty with focusing in the traditional classroom, and moving that student to the virtual world was hard. Screen time fatigue was a real issue for many. In addition, she said there were services that districts provided but not to the full extent depending on the student’s needs, like physical therapy. Vander Boogaard was quick to acknowledge there were students who excelled at virtual learning and technology has allowed students to participate in different ways, and for some students that change may become part of their education plan going forward.

Baseman said the administration made a conscious effort to make communication with parents deliberate explaining that she sent out a systematic communication every Friday. She drafted all her letters in a consistent manner – greeting, reminders, and factual information – so parents weren’t inundated with too many emails or too much information. Every Monday, Baseman would send a communication to teachers and staff to keep them informed. Baseman said having a systematic approach helped parents. Baseman said feedback was important. She said about 2/3 way through the shutdown the school district “pressed pause” and asked families how they were doing. The feedback allowed the school to make adjustments.

Appleton School District will be offering summer programs, all of them virtual. They are focused on general education for students, targeting students who are credit deficient. At the elementary level, the school is using the IReady program, to focus on literacy and math. The district continues to provide Extended School Year (ESY) services as determined by IEP teams.

As the school plans to return to the classroom in the fall, the teachers are starting early to get through student evaluations and assessments before school starts. They said the data gathered through the early evaluations will drive the discussions and planning. IEPs will be evaluated and reviewed to ensure students are continuing to work towards and mare making progress towards goals. Vander Boogaard said returning to schools is going to be a fluid transition because everyone will respond differently and the students with special needs returns are more intentional than in previous years, and some students will need more reassurance than others. When the discussion turned to the medically fragile students Vander Boogaard said some of them may need to stay with virtual services to keep them safe, and some therapy services will have to be discussed. The staff and the families are working together to discuss what that looks like and what everyone’s comfort levels are to ensure the students are safe. Vander Boogaard said the guidance for everything will be centered around the IEP goals and progress being made toward these goals.

Both ladies finished the interview by thanking the staff and the families for working in such a collaborative fashion to ensure the best for the students. Baseman said, “I want to thank all the families for their willingness to work with us. They have stepped up in a way we never anticipated.” Vander Boogaard said it is important to understand things are individualized for these students and not everything has a lock step process. She said it will be important to focus on continuing that individualization as the schools move forward.

Additional information on DPI Special Education Topics.