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

K-12 Schools In Wisconsin Face Host Of Challenges As They Plan For Fall

Emily Files
Milwaukee's Auer Avenue School library pictured in February 2020, before school shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic.

There are still a lot of unknowns about how Wisconsin’s K-12 schools will reopen in the fall.

Public and private school leaders testified to the Assembly Education Committee for seven hours Wednesday about the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

>>MPS Considers How To Safely Bring Students Back

The school leaders told lawmakers that when they surveyed families about the upcoming school year, most parents say they want their kids to return to the classroom.

“Ideally, we would love to be back in school five days a week,” said Jill Underly, superintendent of the rural Pecatonica Area School District. “We know that’s how kids learn best. And we know until kids are in school, our economy can’t reopen because parents can’t go back to work.”

But the logistics of bringing kids back to the classroom are complicated because of the risk of coronavirus transmission.

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction released guidelines to inform districts’ decisions on Monday. The guidelines include models for hybrid learning that would allow students to be more socially distanced in classrooms. For example, under one scenario, half of students would attend school Monday and Tuesday, and the other half Thursday and Friday. When not in the classroom, students would do online school.

>>6 Weeks After Schools Closed, MPS Implemented A Detailed Remote Learning Plan

DPI Senior Policy Advisor Jennifer Kammerud emphasized that all of these decisions are up to local leaders.

“We expect schools to reopen in the fall. How they reopen will be dependent on local school districts,” Kammerud said. “But schools have to prepared that they may need to have a remote learning scenario. They may be closed by their local health authority, that can happen. They may decide to close themselves, that can happen.”

DPI’s guidance received criticism from Assembly Education Committee Chair Jeremy Thiesfeldt, R-Fond du Lac, about not including a five day a week in-person option.

Laura Gutierrez echoed that critique. She is the executive director of the United Community Center in Milwaukee, which runs two independent charter schools.

“It was surprising that none of these scenarios suggested finding a way to educate our students every day with in-person learning, which we all know is most effective to teach students with all needs,” Gutierrez said. “This is what our parents are asking for, and this is what our students need. We will continue to fight to give them that.”

>>Students With Special Needs And Their Families Struggle To Cope With School Closures

Gutierrez said her schools are going to have face-to-face instruction five days a week.

Most schools and districts are still working on their plans for fall. And they’re sorting through all the costs of COVID-19 precautions: needing more buses to space students apart, additional teachers to make hybrid in-person/online learning work, and laptops and internet hotspots for students, to name a few.

Schools are receiving some federal relief from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, but they still have major financial concerns, including whether state aid will be cut to make up for a loss in tax revenue.

>>Financial Uncertainty Looms As Wisconsin School Districts Plan Budgets

“A budget repair bill during the 20-21 school year that cuts school funding will cause schools to reduce services and make a tough situation significantly worse,” said South Milwaukee Superintendent Jeff Weiss.

School leaders said lawmakers could help them by lobbying for more federal funding and loosening restrictions and mandates that, for example, bar retired teachers from returning to work.

The legislators on the committee didn’t talk about plans for specific legislation to help schools with challenges surrounding the coronavirus. But some did say that even though schools are dealing with an unprecedented situation, the state still needs to hold them accountable for student learning.

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