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

MPS Considers How To Safely Bring Students Back

Emily Files
A mural welcomes students to school at Riley Elementary, an Milwaukee Public Schools dual-language Montessori school. This photo was taken before the coronavirus pandemic and it remains uncertain if MPS students can safely go back to school in the fall.

As the current school year wraps up, Milwaukee Public Schools leaders are considering a range of scenarios for the fall. Whether students can safely go back to school remains uncertain due to the coronavirus.

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Deputy Superintendent Calvin Fermin presented the options at a Tuesday school board meeting. He said MPS could keep instruction fully online, as it has done since schools shut down in mid-March and plans to do with summer school. But Fermin said the district’s goal is to resume face-to-face instruction to some degree.

“Obviously, our goal is to return to as much in-person instruction as possible because that’s when students really learn,” Fermin said.

The district is looking at a range of hybrid models that would bring students back on a limited basis to foster social distancing.

One scenario involves students attending school in person one day per week Monday through Thursday, with virtual instruction on the other days. That means only 25% of students would be in school at a time.

"Our goal is to return to as much in-person instruction as possible because that's when students really learn." - Calvin Fermin

In another model, students would be split into two groups, rotating one week in school and one week at home. Another option is to bring back just elementary students. 

“This is just a way to allow elementary students to return to face-to-face sooner. Research suggests they struggle the most with distance learning, whereas the secondary students can adapt more easily,” Fermin said. “Elementary students would be returned to the classroom spaced out among the schools to allow social distancing and then the secondary students would remain full-time virtual instruction.”

In all these scenarios, when students aren't in school, they would engage in distance learning. Fermin said that for virtual learning, the district would do as much live instruction as possible to give students something closer to the face-to-face experience.

If social distancing is required in schools, it will also be required on buses. That will be a challenge for MPS because families rely heavily on busing to attend their schools of choice. According to district numbers, about 44,000 students use yellow buses and about 3,000 use public transit buses.

Fermin said MPS is weighing a “neighborhood schools” model where students are sent to schools walking distance from their homes to ease busing concerns.

“We may need to consider moving to a neighborhood schools approach,” Fermin said. “It may not be feasible to bus the current population or even the reduced population in some of these models. So, we may need to consider moving them back into their neighborhood school to ease some of the transportation considerations under these plans.”

Superintendent Keith Posley said the district could also change its school calendar based on projections for COVID-19 surges. Posley emphasized that no decision for the fall has been made yet.

“One of the things we are faced with is the unknown. We don’t know,” Posley said. “And as soon as we think we’ve got something down to a science, something else happens to spin us off in another direction.”

"We are faced with the unknown ... As soon as we think we've got something down to a science, something else happens to spin us off in another direction." - Keith Posley

Posley said the district is also waiting to see what guidance comes from Wisconsin officials. The Department of Public Instruction is set to issue recommendations for school reopening by the end of June.

“Not knowing if the governor will come in and say 'I want to roll out this particular plan,' whether there might be a federal mandate that comes down that we have to deal with,” Posley said. “So, we want to be nimble.”

If MPS does not fully reopen in the fall, it will have to contend with how to help working parents who can’t be at home while their children receive virtual instruction. The district also serves a high percentage of special needs students who depend on in-person support. MPS board members encouraged administrators to seek feedback from families about the options for fall. 

Posley told the school board he plans to bring back more information on reopening possibilities in late June.

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