MADISON — Whatever public school district you live in, if your child qualifies for special education services, under state and federal law, your student is entitled to free services that tailor to those needs.
An individualized education program or IEP is a legal document protecting those rights. But in five-year-old Leani Tell's case, her family says her IEP lost all its power because of COVID-19.
Leani's home is her classroom. It has to be this way. She can't come to school. Not because of COVID-19, but because she has Spinal Muscular Atrophy.
"She's very, very bright. She's just in a body that makes things look a little bit different," Leani's mom, Nichole Fritts said.
"It affects all the muscles in her body, most particularly breathing muscles swallowing muscles. She's not able to sit or stand or walk. So, all of her muscles, you know are affected," Fritts explained.
"However, it doesn't affect her brain or ability to think her ability to build relationships," Fritts said.
To communicate, the kindergartner in the Madison Metropolitan School District uses an eye gaze device.
"They're little squares on this 20 by 20-inch screen that sits right above where she's at in her bed laying down and she has to eye gaze on a little picture that might have the letter 'I' on it," Leani's dad, Dwight Tell said.
Leani stares at a square with words or pictures she wants, then the computer is her voice.
"Her eye gazing machine is like a second language to people like you and I are talking right now she might have to filter through or scan through three or four different screens to find a full sentence. So full sentences are very hard to put together when you have to go through that, and each time that the teacher in class changes something we might have to go in and find that word or something in her eye gaze and program that in," Fritts explained.
Fritts says in addition to general education needs, Leani requires physical and occupational therapy and also speech help.
"She needs one-on-one face-to-face service to help her adapt what the classroom is doing," Fritts said.
That in-person education takes place not at school, but at a student's home. It's referred to as homebound placement and is included in Leani's IEP. Leani has had homebound services in pre-school before, but since the start of this school year, it hasn't happened.
"So with COVID, the district has essentially said we're not sending anyone in person, you know to your home," Fritts said.
Julia Hartwig is the Special Education Director with Wisconsin's Department of Public Instruction or DPI.
Hartwig says the state has told districts if there's not a public health order and if a student can't receive a free appropriate public education (FAPE) virtually, districts have to find a safe way to provide these in-person services during the pandemic.
"So, districts are still under an obligation to provide the services that are outlined in a student's IEP," Hartwig told the I-Team.
"Is that a legal requirement?" The I-Team's Kristin Byrne asked Hartwig.
"It is a legal requirement under federal and state special education law," Hartwig said.
"So if a child requires homebound placement services and that is laid out in their IEP, and that is not being followed and it's during COVID-19, is that against the law?" Byrne asked Hartwig.
"Yes," Hartwig answered.
The I-Team asked Madison Metropolitan School District why it's not following DPI'S guidance.
A spokesperson provided the below statement.
Thank you for reaching out. The federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), prohibits MMSD from disclosing information related to a student's educational record, which includes a student's individualized education program, therefore we are very limited in the information we can provide. What I can say is, school districts across the country are responsible for balancing the health and safety of its students and staff while maintaining the continuity of appropriate education for students during the COVID-19 pandemic. Providing meaningful learning opportunities for all of our students is incredibly important to us. With the recent decline in COVID-19 cases in the Madison area; vaccine distribution for school staff to begin early March, and the Department of Public Instruction's very recent guidance referenced in your email (released February 12, 2021), our District is actively working hard to address such matters by assessing each individual student case involving direct services to those who are homebound to ensure the health and safety of our students, families and staff.
Communications & Public Affairs
Office of the Superintendent
Madison Metropolitan School District
A Spokesperson for DPI informed the I-Team,
"Our agency did add a question specific to homebound instruction to our COVID-19 Special Education Question and Answer Document [dpi.wi.gov] (Placement section, question #5) on February 12. However, the guidance related to the requirement to provide FAPE (which includes the continuum of placement options) has been longstanding."
The I-Team learned hundreds of other students in our state have been receiving these same services throughout the pandemic.
Data from DPI shows in 2020, 282 students in Wisconsin from public and independent charter schools received homebound placement services.
Racine Unified School District, Sheboygan Area School District, Kenosha Unified School District told the I-Team they are either currently providing or would provide homebound placement if an IEP calls for it.
Milwaukee Public Schools, the largest district in the state, however, is also not allowing anyone inside a student's home.
"Milwaukee Public Schools is currently not providing any support in the homes of the students," said Jennifer Mims-Howell, the Senior Director of Specialized Services with Milwaukee Public Schools.
"In some cases, parents are declining because like you said before their children have medical conditions that don't allow them to leave the home at this time and we just continue to support them in the home virtually as best we can," said Mims-Howell.
"We've determined that what is happening is a violation of the law, so what is DPI doing to correct this? Or is DPI doing anything to correct this?" asks the I-Team.
"So, we put out statewide guidance and have conversations frequently. We ensure that special ed directors around the state are aware of these requirements. We have spoken with district administrators about this requirement," said Hartwig.
"Families have the option to submit a formal complaint to DPI for investigation. As we are made aware of situations where FAPE may not be provided that's when we can begin investigating a specific situation," said Hartwig.
"And yes, if within our investigation, we find that the district has not been providing the services that an IEP team determined or necessary for a child to receive FAPE we may issue corrective action for the districts," Hartwig explained.
Hartwig explains families have other dispute resolution options if there is a disagreement between them and the district. One is mediation.
For months, Leani Tell's parents have been in mediation with Madison Metropolitan School District. The family says those talks haven't been successful.
Since their daughter has a genetic disease, Leani's family puts her health and safety first.
"And it's in her IEP from the two years before COVID that we take extra precautions to protect from any illnesses," Fritts said.
"We're willing to do anything else to protect someone that would be coming into our home, you know we're willing to do temperature checks, you know, myself and the nurse are wearing masks," Fritts said.
Academically, her family says the school year has been tough. Mom and dad or Tell's nurse are her teachers during virtual learning.
"She's struggling to keep up at this point because mostly I don't know what I'm doing," said Fritts.
It doesn't seem like anybody's caring enough to change things," Fritts said.
Madison and Milwaukee schools are starting to phase into in-person learning. Leani's family wonders, why is it okay for twenty-plus students to be in a classroom with a teacher, but not okay for one teacher to come to their home?
They've worked with a parent advocacy group called Madtown Mommas and Disability Advocates as well as with Disability Rights Wisconsin to get Leani the services she needs to learn.
Days ago, Leani's parents told the I-TEAM the Madison Metropolitan School District contacted them saying they will start coordinating homebound placement services for Leani. Nothing has been scheduled so far.
Her parents plan to issue a formal complaint with DPI this week.