Wisconsin’s largest school district, Milwaukee Public Schools, is facing criticism from some teachers and families for its handling of distance education during the coronavirus shutdown. MPS has provided paper packets and links to educational websites. But it’s been slower than many other districts to distribute computers and implement teacher-led remote instruction.
Teachers were told that starting April 20, they should support students with online learning opportunities. But what that means isn’t clear. Should teachers be creating lessons? Should they simply direct students to educational websites?
"I had gone three weeks without any communication about what I was supposed to do with my students," said Angela Harris, a first grade teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School. "Even now, when we're supposed to be back to work, the expectations are still very unclear and they don't equate to virtual learning at all."
Harris is part of the Black Educators Caucus, which represents 73 MPS teachers. The caucus sent a letter to the district this week with a list of concerns. Teachers like Harris worry that the lack of formal education during the school closure is hurting students of color, who are already at a disadvantage in the education system.
"We know that an opportunity gap exists for black children specifically," Harris said. "I think that any attempt to try to reconcile the fact that we are going through a pandemic with the fact that you shouldn’t be educating black children right now is failure by our district, 100%."
In the absence of clear expectations, teachers have done what they think is best. Many have been checking in with students and offering online lessons since the beginning of the shutdown. But the outreach hasn’t been uniform. MPS Board Member Paula Phillips brought up that concern at a meeting Thursday night.
"It just hasn’t been the same," Phillips said. "Every student has not had the same experience during the school closure, based on the luck of the draw — who their teacher is, what school they might have gone to, who their parents are."
Phillips asked Superintendent Keith Posley to bring the board a specific plan with a timeline to implement online instruction and minimum requirements for teachers and principals.
Posley insisted that the district has now laid out clear expectations for staff. But he did admit that MPS is still figuring out how to handle districtwide virtual instruction.
"But is we 100% there right now? I can’t sit here and say we’re 100%," Posley said. "This is brand new for all of us. We are trying to go through to do what we can."
Posley said MPS didn’t make the shift to virtual instruction sooner because it expected the school closures to be temporary. "We thought this would be over and we would be back to learning," he said.
At the meeting Thursday, the MPS Board approved an academic plan that makes some credit exemptions for students to graduate or move to the next grade level and provides guidance for grading using a pass/fail system this semester.
Now, the district is trying to track down all the students who need a Chromebook and internet access. There have been issues with that process because MPS is asking families to complete an online or paper survey before receiving a laptop.
Posley told the school board that the district would do everything it can to get students connected. He said there’s a possibility online learning will extend into the fall semester.
Families are waiting to hear more. Diana Becerra’s younger brother, Diego, is an MPS high school student with special needs. Becerra says they didn’t hear from Diego’s teachers until this week, basically telling them to stay tuned.
"I’m honestly very upset, very disappointed," Becerra said. "And I don’t want to sound insensitive with everything going on … I see MPS’s efforts, but they’re not reaching children with special needs and that’s what makes me the most upset."
MPS did not respond to requests for an interview by the deadline for this story. The district did not answer questions about when a more concrete remote learning plan will be in place.
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