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

School Year Starts Virtually For All MPS Students

Emily Files
Siefert Elementary K4 teacher Rithi Punyamurthula taught a virtual classroom of students Tuesday morning.

All Milwaukee Public School students are back in school this week – virtually. Tuesday was the first day for traditional start schools, which includes most elementary students. High schools and middle schools, most of which are on the district's early-start calendar, started on Aug. 17.

>>'It's Like Everybody's First Year Teaching Again': MPS Prepares For Virtual First Day Of School

MPS held a press conference and took reporters on a tour at Siefert Elementary School Tuesday. Kindergarten teacher Rithi Punyamurthula was talking to her 4-year-old students through a laptop.

“What color is this? Green! That’s right it’s green,” Punyamurthula said. She asked one student who was chattering away to take some deep breaths. Then she showed the students a stack of colorful plastic cups they can build into castles, if and when they come back to classrooms.

Superintendent Keith Posley says the district is preparing to bring students back to schools in a hybrid, two-days-a-week-in-person model in October. But that hinges on COVID-19 conditions.

Credit Emily Files / WUWM
Superintendent Keith Posley spoke at a press conference Tuesday to welcome students back to school, which is starting virtually this year due to COVID-19.

“We’re planning every day to move into phase 2, but we’re also looking at the experts, what are they saying around the rate of infection in the city, what are they saying around whether it’s safe,” Posley said. “And when it’s safe, that’s when we will start moving in that direction of phase 2.”

Posley hasn’t given a specific metric that would allow the move to in-person learning. But he says MPS is working closely with the Milwaukee Health Department.

>>Milwaukee Health Department Releases Rules For Reopening K-12 Schools

MPS Board Member Bob Peterson says the district will also be watching what happens in nearby suburban districts that are starting school in person.

“If things really go bad at certain districts around the community that are open, that will slow us down,” Peterson said. “If everything goes really smoothly and very few people get infected, we’d be more inclined to open up earlier.”

For now, parents and students are adapting to school through a computer screen.

“I like it cause I got used to it quickly,” said Wedgewood Middle School sixth grader Joniel. “I like technology.”

Credit Courtesy Maricelys Andrate
Joniel Andrate, a sixth grader at Wedgewood Park Middle School, participates in virtual learning.

Joniel’s mother, Maricelys Andrate, says there were some technology issues during the first day of middle school on Aug. 17.

“We did have a couple of issues kind of getting into the Google Meet,” Andrate said. “And you can just kind of tell, a couple of kids were of having issues.”

Andrate says things have run smoothly since the first day, and she is happy MPS opted to be cautious and start the year virtually.

“Just like in-person school takes a village, for virtual it takes a village,” Andrate said. “It’s gonna take the IT folks. It’s gonna take the teachers to put in their effort and work and communication. It’s gonna take administrators to be supportive for those teachers. It’s gonna take parents to be possibly even more engaged than we would have been in person.”

Another parent, Acacia Hayes, was feeling exasperated when WUWM interviewed her after the first few days of middle and high school in late August.

“The first day of school was very hectic for at least the first two hours. They were like ‘forget it mom, it’s not worth it, it’s not fair,' " Hayes said of her three children, two of whom go to Bay View High School and the other who goes to Rufus King Middle School.

Hayes said at first she wanted MPS to start virtually, because of concerns about the coronavirus. But now she’s rethinking that.

“I would love for them to go to school and get back on the schedule they’re used to,” Hayes said. “My youngest two, they struggle in math. So them trying to do virtual learning just kind of set them back. I definitely worry.”

Some teachers are eager to get back to in-person teaching as well.

“I’m excited and sad at the same time,” Siefert fifth grade teacher Shanita Williams said about the first day of school. “Because I used to teach first grade, and these are some of the same kids I had in first grade. So I grew with these kids, and I’d love to see them face-to-face.”

Williams was having technical issues Tuesday morning when reporters visited her classroom. The camera on her laptop wasn’t working – she could see students, but they couldn’t see her.

Jim Nelsen, a social studies teacher at Golda Meir High School, says he’s seen an about 90% attendance rate in his virtual classes.

“What I’ve seen so far is that the kids are just extremely adaptable,” Nelsen said. “They want to help each other out. They have not been shy about asking for help, they’ll leave me a comment on Google Classroom or drop into my [virtual] office hours.”

Superintendent Posley said Tuesday that MPS has seen a lower number of ‘"no show" students at its middle and high schools during virtual learning.

MPS is holding a virtual information session for families with questions about online learning Wednesday evening.

And for parents who work during the school day, Posley says MPS and partner organizations are opening up daytime learning centers at about 50 schools. Posley says there will be room for about 4,000 students spread out across those locations, with no more than 75 children at each school. In total, MPS enrolls around 70,000 students. 

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