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Milwaukee School Board Considers Bringing Students Back 4 Days Per Week

virtual learning
Emily Files
MPS students participate in virtual learning at Starms child care camp, a Milwaukee Recreation program.

With Milwaukee’s COVID-19 infection rates low, and vaccinations ramping up, the state’s largest school district may start bringing students back in-person, after a year away.

The Milwaukee Public Schools board will discuss its in-person return plan Tuesday.

MPS administration is recommending students start returning to in-person learning four days per week beginning with the youngest grades April 12. Families would also have a virtual option.

Christine, a parent of three MPS students, says the virtual school year has been a rollercoaster ride. (Christine requested WUWM not use her last name, in order to protect her children's privacy.)

"I definitely had this honeymoon phase in the beginning, like ‘OK, we can do this,’" she says. "But you know, it’s just been really hard for our family."

Christine was happy to hear the MPS board will consider a plan to return to in-person learning four days a week.

"I personally want that for our family," she says. "I want to have that option. I totally respect the fact that some people aren’t ready for that. I think there should still be a virtual option. But I feel it’s time to give us that same opportunity we’ve seen a lot of these other students having all year in other communities."

MPS does appear to be one of the last, if not the last, districts in Wisconsin to commit to an in-person return. Madison, Racine and Green Bay started bringing students back in early March.

The CDC encourages communities with “moderate” COVID spread, like Milwaukee, to open for in-person learning, with three feet of social distancing between students. It also recommends other precautions like mask-wearing and routine testing of a portion of students and staff.

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The details MPS has released publicly about its return plan are sparse, and have raised many concerns for the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association. MTEA president Amy Mizialko says one problem is the fact that MPS wants staff back in-person on March 29, before some of them have been fully vaccinated. That’s two weeks before the student return date.

"We have hundreds, maybe thousands of staff who will not have had their second shot by the time the district is saying they want to see people back," Mizialko says. "A March beginning is just not possible."

Another concern is social distancing. Mizialko says it’s unclear how there will be enough space and teachers to keep class sizes small.

"We have been told that there will be a 15-student limit per classroom," Mizialko says. "And how that can actually be operationalized, there is nothing there that identifies what happens when more than 15 students elect to come back per classroom."

It’s unknown what percentage of MPS families would opt for in-person. The district wants to start surveying parents this Friday, if the school board approves the return plan.

Catherine Loss is principal at Lloyd Barbee Montessori. She says her families are eager to get back.

"We’re starting to gather that information, just anecdotally," Loss says. "We just had parent teacher conferences, … the majority of the students do want to come back. I would say it’s leaning towards 80 to 90% coming back."

Loss says a day camp with about 30 students has been running in-person at Barbee this school year, which has been like a practice run for when more students come back. But she says it will be a big adjustment for the students who have been learning from home all year.

"Everybody’s a little bit nervous about how things are going to go," Loss says. "You know, it’s April and coming back and kind of reviewing those rules — because even though they’ve been teaching them all year, [they'll have to learn] how to walk in a line, or what is a line. When you’re a three-year-old, you don't even know that."

Loss says even though there will be a learning curve, she is looking forward to seeing more students in-person, if the school board approves the return plan.

That board meeting is Tuesday at 5:30 p.m and will be streamed on YouTube. The public will be allowed to give testimony before the board votes.

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Emily is an editor and project leader for WUWM.
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