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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

Milwaukee Public Schools Students Start Returning To Classrooms

Students in the classroom
Emily Files
Milwaukee German Immersion third grade teacher Susan Richardson talks to students on their first day back in classrooms since March 2020.

The school year is more than halfway over. But Wednesday felt like the first day for parents like Trisha Zila. She was dropping off her six-year-old Violet at Milwaukee German Immersion.

"I’m excited for her," Zila said. "Also kind of sad, it’s my first day of kindergarten. It was cute listening to the kids online. They were like, 'I can’t wait to meet you in real person!' So I think that’s the big thing that kids have been missing out on."

Milwaukee Public Schools students started returning to classrooms Wednesday, for the first time in more than a year. MPS is phasing students back in, starting with kindergarten through third grade.

Emily Files
Trisha Zila dropped off her daughter Violet for kindergarten at Milwaukee German Immersion.

Kindergartener Violet said the year of virtual learning "hasn't been so well." "'Cause I kind of don’t like doing online school on the computer," she said.

Another German Immersion student, first grader Kaori, said he’s going to miss being home with his family. "I’m nervous about how I’m gonna miss my family when I’m at school, that’s what I’m nervous about," he said.

When asked whether he'll be able to recognize his friends when everyone is wearing a mask, Kaori said: "I think I’ll recognize their hair. One, his name is Mikel. He’s my best friend. He ain’t got that much hair on. He ain’t bald but but he almost bald."

Kaori's mother, Sophia Turner, laughed at his jokes.

Emily Files
Sophia Turner and her son Kaori, a Milwaukee German Immersion first grade student.

"I feel kind of the same way he does as far as missing him, of course," Turner said. "I’ve been home with him all year. This is kind of a bittersweet day for both of us. But I’m excited he’s going back. They definitely need to come back. I know they will be so much more fluent than what they are at home."

Turner said helping Kaori with virtual school, she feels like she’s learned German too. But she said his grades have suffered, so she’s ready for him to get back in the classroom.

The next group of MPS students, in grades fourth-eighth, will start returning to buildings April 19. High school seniors or students at risk of failing a class can return April 26. Most students will be in-person four days per week, with virtual learning on Wednesdays. But MPS says students with disabilities will be offered in-person instruction five days per week.

The Department of Public Instruction has repeatedly told MPS that it is not adequately serving students with disabilities through virtual learning. DPI threatened to withhold funding if the district did not offer in-person instruction for all special needs students.

Emily Files
The principal of Samuel Clemens School says about half of students plan to return in-person, which means the school will not need to put students in overflow rooms.

The overall percentage of MPS families who opted for in-person instruction is unclear. Initial surveys showed 59% choosing in-person, but not all families completed the survey.

At German Immersion, the principal said about 80% of families chose to come back. Since class sizes are limited to 18 students for social distancing, some students will be in overflow rooms. Trisha Zila said that includes her daughter’s class.

"There’s gonna be an overflow room where the librarian teaches, and I think they are gonna watch [the instruction] on a screen probably somehow," Zila said. "I was kinda concerned about that, but I like that they’re switching it up so it’s not the same students stuck in that room."

The overflow situation turned some parents off. Brittney Campbell has twin daughters in second grade at Milwaukee French Immersion. She didn’t want them to go back if she didn’t know who would be teaching them.

Emily Files
Students arrive wearing masks at Samuel Clemens School.

"Just the fact that they’re not gonna be in front of their teacher, that was disappointing for them," Campbell said. "Just because I don’t know how they were picking who’s going to be in the class and who’s not ... I didn't want to take that gamble."

These questions may come up at a special MPS Board meeting planned for Thursday night. The school board called the meeting in part to address concerns from the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association. The union is worried about the safety of employees as COVID-19 numbers increase locally.

“Since staff began returning on Monday, we have received nearly 150 reports of health and safety concerns from members, and more reports continue to come in," MTEA said in the statement Wednesday. "We are notifying Administration of these issues, both large and small, we are keeping lines of communication open with Administration and School Board members, and offering solutions on how to improve and properly implement health and safety protocols."

The topic of school reopening remains sensitive. When WUWM tried to interview parents outside of Craig Montessori, which was not part of MPS’s media tour, the reporter was ordered to leave by a principal.

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