Updated on July 17 at 3:12 p.m. CT
The Milwaukee Health Department's most recent order outlining coronavirus-related precautions prohibits Milwaukee schools from opening for in-person instruction, even though many private and charter schools and colleges were planning on doing so this fall. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that some schools didn't know about the restriction until MPS announced its plan for virtual learning.
The discussion over whether to bring students back to Milwaukee public schools drew emotional and divided feedback during an online school board meeting Thursday night. But the board was unanimous in agreeing that for now, the pandemic makes it too dangerous to reopen classrooms to children. The board approved the superintendent’s plan to start the school year virtually.
As one teacher described it, the question of what to do about school during this pandemic is a lose-lose situation. MPS administration erred on the side of caution, with a proposal to begin the year with distance learning for 30 to 45 days.
Superintendent Keith Posley said MPS has to prioritize safety, as coronavirus cases rise across the county.
“We can make up school hours and days for students to get caught up with their lessons,” Posley said. “But we can’t bring a lost life back.”
Posley’s proposal is to reopen schools in phases. In the first phase, teachers could return to classrooms, but students would learn from home.
“Pending improved health results, phase two will allow students to learn face to face for two days each week and virtually for three days each week,” Posley said.
And phase three would have students in school five days a week, with a virtual option. The plan is estimated to cost $90 million, including new technology for distance learning, cleaning supplies, and PPE. About $42 million in federal CARES Act relief will offset those expenses, but it won't come close to covering the total amount of new costs.
When the microphone opened to public testimony, more than a dozen MPS parents voiced opposition to the idea of a virtual start to the school year.
“How are you going to support my child? Am I going to have to find a different district to take him?” asked Jaime Gilbert.
“Virtual learning requires parents to be unpaid teachers, and as a previous caller mentioned, it’s untenable for many families with working parents,” said Hans Angermeier.
“Whatever needs to be done needs to be done,” Shonda Norton said. “Because the kids are going to be left behind. They’re already behind on their studies.”
Some of these parents have young children or children with special needs — groups that tend to struggle more with online learning.
But there were also voices in support of virtual school because of health concerns, including almost every teacher who spoke.
“I would like to see all of my students alive, rather than have to attend a student funeral virtually,” said teacher Ashley Fahey.
Some parents were supportive of the virtual plan, as was MPS high schooler Priyana Cabraal.
“The best thing to do in the midst of a health epidemic is to rely on health professionals and the data from COVID-19 tests,” Cabraal told the school board. “And right now the data is telling us that it’s not safe to return to schools. I value my education more than anything. I’m urging you all to vote in favor of this proposal to avoid putting students like myself in the position to make a choice between my health and my education.”
The school board heeded that request — members were unanimous about starting the school year virtually. They also heard the concerns of parents who said the remote learning MPS provided last spring was inadequate. Board member Paula Phillips questioned whether MPS would be ready to roll out high-quality remote instruction by Aug. 17. That’s the start date for middle and high schools.
“There’s a deficit of trust and we’re trying to rebuild trust right now,” said Phillips. “If we don’t get this right, it will have significant consequences.”
After assurances from the superintendent, the board decided to keep its two-calendar system — with some schools starting Aug. 17 and others on Sept. 1. MPS says it will pack in a lot of professional development for staff to learn the virtual ropes.
As for when MPS might move to phase two and bring students back to classrooms, Superintendent Posley didn’t give specific criteria. He said MPS would consult with the Milwaukee Health Department and look at numbers like the local rate of COVID-19 infections.
The Milwaukee Teachers Education Association and other community groups are calling on city officials to close bars and restaurants in order to get the virus under control and allow students to return to schools.
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