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What are you curious about when it comes to education in the Milwaukee area?

Wisconsin's Top Education Stories Of 2020

Emily Files
A kindergartener at Pilgrim Lutheran School in Wauwatosa on the first day of school.

There were a number of major news developments this year that intersected with just about every area of life — including education. The biggest education story of 2020 has been how COVID-19 changed schooling so dramatically.

School Shutdown

On March 13, Gov. Tony Evers closed K-12 schools as coronavirus cases began to surface in Wisconsin. School leaders scrambled to provide meals and education options for students at home.

“This has truly been a labor of love,” said Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent Keith Posley at a press conference in March. “We are working to make sure everyone gets exactly what they need in this trying situation.”

Credit Emily Files / WUWM
Stephanie Rodriguez displays the instructional materials MPS gave to families in March, following a statewide school closure order. Her two sons hold bags of to-go meals provided by the district.

But as the school closures stretched on, districts — including MPS — struggled to roll out online education. Teacher Angela Harris and others spoke out.

“We know a lot of our students were already facing inequities and all that has been multiplied because of the pandemic,” Harris said. “So would this be the time to say, ‘We’re going to leave this open to teachers’ interpretation?’ Or is this the time that we say, ‘This is how we’re going to engage our students during virtual learning because we don’t want to widen this opportunity gap?’”

About six weeks after schools closed, MPS implemented a more comprehensive technology distribution and education plan.

Families around Wisconsin had to adjust to virtual education. Parents Erica Young and John Berges, both UWM professors, spoke to WUWM in April about the challenges of balancing their jobs with virtual learning for their son Theo, who has special needs and attends Shorewood High School.

“Our new normal is barely getting by,” Berges said.

Black Lives Matter Movement

Another major story of 2020 was the country’s reckoning with racism and police brutality.

Schools are under the microscope when it comes to those issues as well. Over the summer, MPS cancelled contracts for school resource officers.

“I want us doing something that’s not just saying Black Lives Matter,” said MPS Board Member Sequanna Taylor. “But having actions, actionable steps behind it.”

Credit Emily Files / WUWM
Staff and families of Rocketship charter school in Milwaukee held a silent protest after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

While MPS serves mostly students of color, Wisconsin’s predominately white districts are also being held accountable for how they deal with racism. In Burlington, parent Darnisha Garbade is leading a campaign for more anti-racist training and education.

“Burlington is a monoethnic town," Garbade said. “You have 97% white people. In order to truly see equity and change, you have to invite people of color to the table to make these decisions.”

School Reopening Debate

As we approach the new year, education remains fundamentally altered by the pandemic.

There is still a debate raging in Wisconsin about whether schools should be open.

“I’ve been pretty much hands-off on this issue all along,” Evers said in a December news conference. “Because I think even though it’s messy, school boards have been making decisions right along with public health officials in their municipalities.”

Credit Emily Files / WUWM
Wisconsin Lutheran High School families protested a Milwaukee Health Department's original order banning schools from in-person classes. The health department is now allowing schools to reopen with safety measures in place.

In the absence of state direction, there has been a patchwork of local decisions.

Some schools have been online this entire semester. Carmen Southeast High School Teacher McKenzie King, in Milwaukee, says it’s like relearning how to teach.

>>Listen: Virtual Classroom Series

“So at every single point we’re like, ‘How are we going to do this? How are we going to do this?’” King said. “But we don’t have those questions about in-person learning, we’ve been trained to do it that way.”

Other schools are in-person, with precautions like mask-wearing. On the first day of school at Pilgrim Lutheran in Wauwatosa, sixth grader Ryan Hayes described why he wanted to be in the classroom.

“Because I feel like it’s going to be history, in the history books,” Hayes said. “So I want to be involved so I could tell my son’s kids or somebody else’s kids what happened during this pandemic.”

The debate about opening schools is bound to continue into 2021. The Wisconsin Supreme Court will weigh in by deciding whether local health officials have the authority to close schools during this crisis.

Have a question about education you'd like WUWM's Emily Files to dig into? Submit it below.


Emily is an editor and project leader for WUWM.
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