Government Schools

West Hartford Providing Special Education for Students in Hybrid, Remote, and Full-In Person Programs

Desks spread apart for greater distancing at Conard High School. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Students who have been determined to be ‘high needs’ based on a state definition are being offered the opportunity for full in-person learning when school begins Sept. 8.

By Ronni Newton

West Hartford Public Schools students will return to school on Tuesday, Sept. 8, with most students enrolled in the hybrid model and approximately 15% of students engaged in a fully-remote learning plan.

Families of students who are receiving special education services, either students with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or those who qualify for a 504 Plan, are given the same choices as any other family in the district regarding attending school in person or remotely, Director of Pupil Services Gretchen Nelson said.

“They are students first,” she said. The necessary services will then be layered on top of whatever plan the family chooses for the child.

“Every student has the choice to opt for remote,” Nelson said. The district doesn’t make the recommendation, she said, but “we will support them,” and ensure that appropriate service is being provided.

The percentage of special education students attending in-person and those who are remote parallels the overall district percentage, Nelson said.

Certain high-needs students, however, are being provided with the option of full access to in-person schooling, even while other students are still in hybrid mode. The state has provided a definition of what constitutes “high needs,” Nelson said, and includes students who are involved in intensive programs where they have one-to-one adult supervision.

“Those high-needs students will be provided with full access,” Nelson said, where they are in school every day.

There are roughly 175 students who qualify as high needs throughout the district, Nelson said, ranging from Pre-K through post-secondary.

Students receiving special education services will be assigned to a cohort under the hybrid plan like all students, and will be with those students in their cohort during the assigned in-person (Red or Blue) week.

During the “off” week, students who are in school every day will be receiving all of their specialized services in a learning center, with other students who are also part of their same overall cohort. There will be no mixing of cohorts, Nelson said.

Both high schools and all three middle schools have students who will be offered full access. Elementary school students at Whiting Lane, Wolcott, Norfeldt, Braeburn, and Morley also have high needs special education students.

The West Hartford Public Schools Early Learning Center (ELC), for Pre-K students with IEPs who attend programs at Aiken and Whiting Lane, have full-access programming and are not cohorted, Nelson said.

The STRIVE program, which is located at the Cogswell Building on the campus of the American School for the Deaf, will operate under the hybrid model, Nelson said. The post-secondary program, which is in a separate wing of the Cogswell Building, will operate with full access for students.

REACH, which is an alternative high school program physically located on the Conard campus, is not a special education program, Nelson said. It will open under the hybrid model.

Assigning staff has been a complicated task for all school administrators, and Nelson said there are a certain number of special education teachers who have requested remote teaching assignments. Those teachers will be  working with remote learning students, and some teachers will be involved in both in-person and remote learning programs.

“We have replaced some of the teachers to meet the needs of in-person students, but we have not needed to replace many,” Nelson said.

Special education teaching assistants are also assisting in both in-person and remote learning programs.

The first few days of school for all students will involve learning new protocols, and like all students special education students are required to wear masks.

There are not currently any students who have received medical exemptions from wearing masks, but Nelson said there are some students who have learning issues or skill deficits leading to an inability to wear a mask consistently.

“Our goal is to engage students in mask training,” Nelson said. “We acknowledge that some students will need to learn these skills,” she said, and videos as well as physical demonstrations will be used to assist.

In some cases, there will be extra distancing, partitions, and extra layers of PPE such as gowns or face shields needed to ensure that everyone is kept safe.

“I’ve made sure all teachers, teaching assistants, and paraprofessionals have PPE great appropriate for each circumstance,” Nelson said.

There were some students in the buildings this summer, Nelson said – students who were identified as having significant support needs and qualified for extended orientation.

“There was a dramatic increase in the ability to wear masks consistently,” Nelson said of the students who attended the orientation program.

Some West Hartford special education students have needs which require placement in programs outside of the district.

“Each placement is different,” Nelson said. The nature of how the services will be delivered depends on the individual programs and individual students, and West Hartford Public Schools is working with those families.

More details about West Hartford’s plan for special student populations can be found in the WHPS Blueprint for Reopening Schools.

“The principals have created some wonderful videos,” Nelson added, which benefit all students. Teachers are also sending home videos of themselves in PPE gear.

“We want to increase students’ sense of safety, security, and comfort,” said Nelson. “We really strive to make sure our schools and environment make students feel safe and welcome.”

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