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MPS parents and teachers grapple with second week of virtual learning, amid COVID surge

MPS's Maple Tree Elementary School.
Emily Files
MPS's Maple Tree Elementary School.

Milwaukee Public Schools is in its second week of districtwide virtual learning this school year.

District leaders decided not to bring students back in-person after winter break due to surging COVID cases. The school board extended the closure until next Tuesday, making MPS the only Wisconsin district to opt for a two-week shutdown.

On Tuesday afternoon at Maple Tree Elementary on Milwaukee’s far northwest side, a father named Akeem was picking up a Chromebook laptop for his 4-year-old son.

"Now they’re virtual, it’s good, and he’ll continue to keep his curriculum up, and you know, continue learning at home – safe, COVID free."

Akeem said he was glad MPS decided to go virtual since the omicron variant is driving up COVID infections.

"The new variant is spreading rapidly," he said. "I didn't want him to get sick. I don't want either one of his family members to get sick. So yes, I was worried."

Last week, 741 MPS staff and 360 students tested positive for COVID-19, according to district data.

Washington Heights resident Brooke Frizzell also has a 4-year-old kindergartener in MPS – her daughter goes to nearby Milwaukee French Immersion. Frizzell reluctantly supported MPS' decision to extend virtual learning another week.

"We were not shocked at the decision," Frizzell said. "It’s still pretty soul-crushing to see it."

Frizzell said virtual school just doesn't work well for four-year-olds. And she and her husband, though they both work at home, have full-time jobs on top of caring for their daughter.

"I log in and out of my work throughout the day, and we have a deal with her that if she does her school, then she can watch a movie in the afternoon," Frizzell said. "So that’s an hour and a half that I can sit and work while she watches The Peanuts Movie every single day."

Frizzell hopes MPS reopens schools next week, but she still has reservations because her daughter is too young to get vaccinated.

Teacher Jessica Wegner also wants MPS to go back in-person and follow its previous practice of closing a school if 3% of students and staff test COVID positive.

"I really think they should look at it on a school-by-school basis and figure out what each individual school needs instead of lumping us all together into one," Wegner said. "Because I think our school, the staff we have, we’d be able to go back in-person because we have enough staff."

Wegner is a special education teacher at Congress School near 51st and Hampton. She said her middle school students are struggling with virtual learning and many aren’t logging on consistently.

"A lot of my students have autism so just the separation has been really hard on them," Wegner said. "Them being back in school, the anxiety and stuff has been getting a lot better. And now we’re back to virtual again and then we have to start all over, so it’s just really frustrating."

Other MPS teachers and the teachers' union advocated for the district to stay virtual this week due to safety concerns. Liz Kremer, an art teacher at Riverwest's Fratney Elementary, said in-person education is ideal – but not with this level of COVID.

"What would make me feel safe is having more controlled – fewer cases in the community and less out-of-control community spread," Kremer said. "I think that’s the concern here is that so many people in the district are sick or caring for people that are affected."

Milwaukee County health officials said it might be weeks before the omicron surge declines. Milwaukee is still in the “extreme transmission” category, with a 37% test positivity rate.

MPS' plans so far haven’t changed. A spokesman said Tuesday students are still expected to return in-person on Jan. 18.

MPS continues to provide free meals to-go at dozens of schools. On Thursday, the district is hosting a vaccination clinic at Fratney School and COVID testing for staff and students at multiple schools.

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Emily is an editor and project leader for WUWM.
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