As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, K-12 schools in Wisconsin are making a variety of decisions about how to reopen.
Most Milwaukee schools are starting the year virtually. But some suburban districts and private schools are bringing students back in person, with a host of precautions.
What does in-person school during a pandemic look like? WUWM Education Reporter Emily Files visited Pilgrim Lutheran, a K-8 school in Wauwatosa, to find out.
It’s about 7:30 a.m. on Aug. 26, the first day of school at Pilgrim Lutheran. Principal Ernie DiDomizio pumps up his staff before they head outside to greet students.
“I wanted to remind you how hard you worked and prepared for this,” DiDomizio says. “We don’t believe in luck, chance or happenstance. This is God’s plan, and we’re excited to execute it.”
Outside the school, cars are lined up from the main entrance on Center Street, wrapping around the corner to 68th Street.
Before students get out of cars, Pilgrim staff members ask their parents a few questions: “Have you taken any Tylenol? Have you traveled outside of the United States the last 14 days? Have you had close contact with anyone who tested positive for COVID the last 14 days?”
After answering “no,” the car drives forward, and another staffer checks the children’s temperature using a no-contact forehead thermometer. Then, the students get a pump of hand sanitizer and are led to their classrooms.
Most of the students arrive wearing masks. If they aren’t wearing one, they’re given as mask, since face coverings are required in the building.
The beginning of drop-off is chaotic, with some students crowding around each other and the line of cars growing long. But after a while they get the system down.
Jessica, one of the moms at drop-off, says she’s excited for the start of school.
“I felt like as long as they were taking the proper precautions to keep our kids safe, and the parents, if we were doing everything we can do, and they’re practicing the social distance with the desks, it would be safe,” she said. “And I think it’s best for the kids to have interaction with each other and the teachers.”
Pilgrim Lutheran enrolls about 250 kindergarten through eighth grade students — mostly children from low-income families who qualify for tuition vouchers through the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program.
This year, a little under 100 Pilgrim students are coming to school in-person. The rest chose a virtual option, offered by LUMIN, the network of Lutheran schools that includes Pilgrim. Nicole Schmidt, LUMIN’s chief academic officer, says the network took a dual in-person and virtual approach to school reopening to meet parents’ needs.
“We surveyed families back in June and asked them for their intentions and how they’re feeling and what they really want for their child,” Schmidt said. “And at the time it was really 50/50 — some wanting exclusively virtual, some wanting an in-person experience.”
LUMIN’s online school has a separate set of teachers, which means the network had to hire 11 new teachers to help staff the parallel systems. It also means the in-person schools have small class sizes, with less than 10 students in most of Pilgrim’s classrooms on the first day.
“It’s exciting, I hope to not get too spoiled to it,” said seventh and eighth grade math teacher Kim Springer. “I can give more one-on-one attention. This is ideal for any teacher.”
In Gabriella Ehlke’s kindergarten class, there are just seven students on the first day. Last year she had 25. Ehlke’s students are in desks spaced between 3 feet and 6 feet apart. They all have masks – but only two of the 5-year-olds are wearing them properly.
“We need to make sure our masks are over our noses,” Ehlke reminded students.
“I think it’s a new experience for all of us,” Ehlke told WUWM. “Making sure their mask fits right will be important. Making sure that I keep reminding them. We’ll have to come up with a few songs or dances to make sure we’re wearing them properly and safely.”
It seems like the older students have less trouble wearing the masks correctly.
“I don’t like it but I have to,” said sixth grader Ryan Hayes. “Because, it’s not a law — but you have to keep your classmates and everybody else safe.”
The first few hours of classes at Pilgrim were spent going over behavior expectations – including COVID-19 precautions, and getting to know each other. Teacher Jazmine Bryant asks her sixth graders if there’s anything they’re worried about this year. One student says she’s anxious about getting sick.
“I love that you mention that. That’s the big elephant in the room,” Bryant says. “We’re gonna wear our masks, and we’re gonna sanitize like crazy. We’re gonna make sure our first priority is keeping us safe, OK?”
Student Ryan Hayes understands that this school year is a significant moment in history.
“I feel like it’s going to be in history books,” Hayes says. “So I want to be involved so I can tell my son’s kids or somebody else’s kids what happened during this pandemic.”
Even with Pilgrim’s prevention efforts, LUMIN Vice President of Marketing and Communications Rebecca Ehlers says they found out about 90 minutes into the first day of school that one student had been exposed to COVID-19. Ehlers says that student tested positive, and their entire class has moved to online learning for two weeks. The rest of the school is continuing with in-person classes.
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