Monday was the first day of coronavirus-related school closures for thousands of children across Wisconsin. Late last week, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers ordered all Wisconsin K-12 schools to shut down in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19.
The state’s largest district, Milwaukee Public Schools, is closed until at least April 14. MPS has an overwhelmingly low-income student population, and all of its students normally receive free breakfast and lunch at school every day.
So, finding a way to feed students was the first task MPS leaders scrambled to accommodate after the school closure was announced late Friday.
“It’s been a labor of love,” Superintendent Keith Posley said at a Monday morning press conference. “We’re working to make sure that everyone gets exactly what they need in this trying situation.”
On Monday, the district began distributing free "grab and go" meals at 20 sites across the city. Families can pick up breakfast and lunch at the same time.
“We’ve started out with 20 sites, we may have to open up more,” Posley said. “The other thing we have looked at is a hotline, so that individuals that we may have missed that can’t get to a school -- we will look at that particular piece.”
Families stopping at meal locations were happy about the service, and said they understood why MPS closed schools. But they still have concerns.
“I have mixed feelings,” said Stephanie Rodriguez, who was picking up food at South Division High School for her two kids, who are six and seven years old. "I know it’s for the best. But at the same time, being such short notice and not having anybody to watch them, it’s kind of concerning because I have to miss work now.”
Rodriguez is a supervisor at a bank that she says is continuing drive-through operations and wants its employees to work.
“I know they will give me time off, but I’ll probably have to use all my vacation time now, or my sick days,” Rodriguez said. “So now I have no sick days throughout the year in case I get sick, or they get sick.”
At another meal pick-up site, Lloyd Barbee Montessori School, Wilbert Bentley also expressed mixed feelings. Bentley’s five-year-old daughter attends Barbee, and his two teenagers go to high school in Wauwatosa, where schools are also closed.
“It’s a headache,” he said. “We will have some headaches, three or four weeks -- that’s a vacation.”
Bentley is self-employed as a barber, so he’ll be at home with the kids. Even though it might be challenging, he sees an upside to everyone being stuck at home.
“I kind of feel good spending more time with my kids,” Bentley said. “This is a time you can be a parent and teach kids what they need to be taught, mentally, however. That’s the best thing a parent can give to their kids is time.”
To foster student learning, MPS is distributing printed packets with grade-level writing prompts, reading comprehension exercises, and math equations. The worksheets are optional and won’t count towards students’ grades.
Superintendent Posley said it’s possible school closures will extend beyond April 14, depending on the public health situation. Posley said MPS is talking with the state and other districts about how classes could continue remotely if that were to happen.
“We’re in pandemic mode right now, this is much different than a snow make-up day,” Posley said. “Like last year, we had five or six days we had to make up. That was a large number. But right now this is a national pandemic. So we don’t know — we will be taking directions from federal, local and state government.”
Posley said one of his top priorities is making sure high school seniors can graduate.
Wisconsin school districts are required to complete a certain number of instructional hours. But with districts across the state closed for at least a few weeks, the state Department of Public Instruction announced Monday it will relax those rules.
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