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

Parents Express Mixed Emotions As About 30,000 MPS Students Return To School

MPS teacher talking to students.
Emily Files
MacDowell Montessori teacher Mary Lawler talks to her fourth through sixth grade students on the first day of school.

After spending most of last year learning from home, about 30,000 Milwaukee Public Schools students returned to classrooms Monday for a new year that district leaders hope will be closer to normal.

MPS has 41 schools on the early start calendar — primarily high schools and middle schools.

At MacDowell Montessori, a K-12 school on Milwaukee's west side, students were cheered on by MPS staff members and elected officials as they walked down a red carpet and in to school.

It looked a lot like back-to-school celebrations before the pandemic, except everyone was wearing a mask.

Emily Files
Students arriving at MacDowell Montessori were cheered on by MPS Superintendent Keith Posley, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, and a number of other local and state elected officials.

MPS Superintendent Keith Posley said a mask requirement is one of the many ways the district is trying to keep students safe, as the delta variant pushes COVID case numbers up in Wisconsin.

>>Milwaukee County Officials Urge Universal Masking In Schools As Districts Make Varied Decisions

"To maximize the health and safety of our school, we will continue to require students and staff to wear masks and physical distancing, practice good hygiene and frequent hand washing, sanitizing space, ensuring proper ventilation, promoting vaccinations and quarantine and isolation as necessary," Posley said.

Parents dropping off their students were feeling a mixture of nerves and excitement. Zana Smith, the mother of a kindergarten student named Nova, said she is worried about the COVID situation.

"I just got anxiety, I don’t know," Smith said. "I’m just scared. But I’m protected — I mean, I feel like she’s protected here. I feel like she’ll be OK."

Emily Files
MacDowell teacher Mark Beams asked his tenth grade chemistry students to write about their hopes for the school year on the first day of school.

On the other side of the school building, Passion Terrell watched her son walk through the high school entrance. "I am dropping off my son, Demarus," Terrell said. "It’s his senior year, so I’m super excited."

Terrell said Demarus did well with virtual learning, and she was nervous about sending him back in person.

"Because he does have a compromised immune system," Terrell said. "He’s kind of been in a bubble and isolated for the past 16 months. So I am a little nervous. But he’s older, he knows what to do. He knows to keep his mask on, wash your hands, hand sanitizer, social distance."

Terrell said she ultimately decided in-person school was the best choice because it will allow Demarus to take International Baccalaureate classes. MPS does have a limited virtual option this year, but it doesn’t include an IB program.

Emily Files
Heather Boxill's K3-K5 students listen as she explains classroom rules on the first day of school.

Posley said MPS is contracting with Edgenuity to run its virtual program for about 1,300 students. He said Edgenuity will provide the teachers, who will use a mix of live (synchronous) and self-directed (asynchronous) learning. Previously, MPS has used Edgenuity online classes primarily for credit recovery at the high school level.

>>Many Southeast Wisconsin School Districts To Offer Virtual Option Next School Year

On a media tour of MacDowell, teachers were talking to their students about classroom rules, including COVID precautions like hand-washing.

"What do you do with your work after you’re done?" early childhood teacher Heather Boxill asked her students.

"You put it back," the students responded.

"And then what do you do?" Boxill asked.

"Wash your hands!" the students said.

Emily Files
K3-K5 teacher Heather Boxill had a class of about a dozen students on the first day of school.

Most students, from the youngest to the oldest, were wearing their masks properly. But there were different levels of social distancing. A tenth grade chemistry classroom was packed with 28 students, leaving little space between them, while a kindergarten class had plenty of space for the 12 students there.

MPS has said it would follow social distancing practices to the greatest extent possible, but there are no caps on classroom sizes.

Experts say the best way to protect yourself and others against COVID-19 is to get vaccinated, although children under 12 aren’t eligible yet.

The MPS Board will vote on whether to consult with the city attorney about a vaccination mandate for teachers. That’s something a handful of other big school districts, including Chicago Public Schools, have already done.

The rest of MPS students return to classrooms Sept. 2.

Emily has been reporting on Milwaukee-area education for WUWM since 2018.
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