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

MPS pushes in-person return date to Jan. 18

MPS schools have been in-person this school year, until a last-minute switch with virtual learning this week.
Emily Files
MPS schools have been in-person this school year, until a last-minute switch with virtual learning this week.

Milwaukee Public Schools students will have at least one more week of virtual learning due to an “extreme” amount of COVID-19 transmission in the community.

The MPS board voted Thursday to open schools in-person on Jan. 18, instead of the originally planned date of Jan. 10.

"I don’t think any of us thought that we would be having this discussion again," Superintendent Keith Posley said during the special board meeting. "Unfortunately, based on the high COVID-19 numbers, we are seeing it. And we must take a look at our approach for a safe learning environment."

COVID case numbers are skyrocketing in Milwaukee and statewide, as the more contagious omicron variant becomes dominant.

MPS went virtual this week due to high COVID infections among staff. The district has not answered questions about how many cases prompted the decision, but its public dashboard shows more than 1,000 cases among students and staff reported in the last week.

MPS employees and the teachers’ union pleaded for the district to remain virtual for at least the next week. Teacher Janney Drana was one of several who said mitigation measures are insufficient.

"I was never given any cleaning supplies by anyone in MPS — all the cleaning supplies I use come from me or my students’ families and we are running out. We also run out of masks in my building on a regular basis," Drana said. "Even though I would rather be in my classroom with students, just looking at the numbers scares me."

Not all teachers were in favor of staying virtual. Several sent emails to the board urging an in-person reopening. They said the negative impacts of virtual school on students outweigh the risks, now that COVID vaccinations are available.

Some parents were also upset about the return to virtual school. Patricia Wilson said her daughter is not as engaged in online learning.

"I am against kids staying home virtually because a whole lot of them are not learning anything," Wilson said. "They learn more when they are in-person than they do at home."

Superintendent Posley recommended the district remain virtual for one more week and return in-person on Jan. 18. From there, individual schools would go virtual if 3% of their school community tests positive for COVID. The district has been using that threshold since the beginning of the school year, and 18 schools have reached it at various points.

Board member Megan O’Halloran argued for a different approach – to allow schools with low numbers of COVID cases to reopen next week.

"I just want to once again reiterate my concerns about using this guidance and saying with broad brush that we’re going to stay remote next week because overall the numbers are large," O'Halloran said. "I get overall the numbers are large. But at the local level, some of the schools are not."

But most of the board agreed with Posley’s proposal for Jan. 18. They said it would give the district more time address staff concerns about improving COVID mitigation in schools.

The MPS board also decided against adopting the CDC’s new guidance for a shortened, five-day isolation period when someone tests positive for COVID.

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Emily is WUWM's education reporter and a news editor.
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