MADISON – Most schools in Wisconsin were delivering at least some in-person instruction to students during the first half of the school year but students in the state’s urban centers were most likely to be learning virtually, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel review of initial state data shows.
Students learning from home during the fall were more likely to be living in poverty and to be children of color while many children living in suburban and rural areas who are more likely to be white had the option of attending class in person, raising concerns over the coronavirus pandemic’s effect on Wisconsin’s longstanding and massive gap in academic achievement between its Black and white students.
The state has not collected complete information on schools, but what it has gathered based on a voluntary survey of schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program provides a snapshot of how schools responded to the COVID-19 pandemic during its worst surge so far.
“Right now my fear based on the data you see is that there’s not equal access and I’m afraid that the disparities that already existed are going to be exacerbated by that current status,” said state Sen. Dale Kooyenga, a Republican from Brookfield.
On Tuesday, Department of Public Instruction state superintendent Carolyn Stanford Taylor told a legislative committee the pandemic highlighted longstanding inequities in Wisconsin’s school system.
She said for large, urban school districts like Milwaukee — where most students have been learning virtually for a year — district officials grappled with questions about how to keep tens of thousands of students and staff safe in hundreds of school buildings that are in some cases more than 100 years old, and also faced the question of how to deliver about 51,000 students safely on enclosed buses.
“Is there a benefit to in-person? I do believe that, yes,” Stanford Taylor said. “But we were in a totally different situation here that we all had to work ourselves through.”
State officials at the DPI and Department of Health Services recently collected information on how schools were delivering instruction so they could provide federal food assistance to low-income children who are attending classes virtually because of COVID-19 and not receiving subsidized meals they would ordinarily receive in school. Under that program, the families of students can receive $6.82 for food for each day they attend class remotely.
But to provide that assistance, the state needs to know how much time each student spent in class virtually.
The data shows how schools operated for the first half of the school year, from August to December based on a voluntary survey. Not all schools responded to the survey and not all officials who responded provided complete information. DPI will need to update the information later to determine how much food assistance the students get for the second part of the school year.
By March, nearly every school in Wisconsin was conducting at least some coursework in person, according to a review last month by the USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin.
But for Milwaukee and Madison the availability of in-person education was sparse at that time, with both districts holding classes almost entirely virtual. The two districts — the largest in the state — are in the process of returning most students to in-person classes part of the time.
Democratic Sen. LaTonya Johnson of Milwaukee said she thought many urban schools were more likely to go virtual because they lacked resources and didn’t have enough room to hold socially distanced in-person classes.
“I think it was a classic situation of urban schools not having resources like some of our suburban schools did. And having overcrowded classes vs. some of our rural schools who have smaller class sizes and more space,” she said.
Some rural schools may not have had access to broadband, making it tougher for them to go virtual, she said.
Johnson supported Milwaukee Public Schools’ decision to hold classes remotely.
“If the schools would have been open, you would have seen even more outbreaks in our urban areas,” she said.
Efforts needed to catch up
Kooyenga said the state and schools should try to address learning loss by getting more students back in class and using billions of dollars in recent federal aid to help students who have fallen behind. Teachers could be paid 10% to 30% bonuses to help with the effort, he said.
“There should be an effort right now with that COVID money to get as many teachers and teachers aides and other professionals to put in the time over summer, after school hours in the fall, for the next couple of years in order to catch these kids up — not only where they were before COVID but beyond that,” he said.
“It’s going to have to take a double-down, triple-down effort to get these kids and the school with adults to read with them and do math with them and do all the things that encompass an in-person education.”
Johnson said students will likely need to attend summer school to catch up, but said state officials need to take the long view on how to close the racial achievement and opportunity gaps.
“I think the ultimate way to make that achievement gap smaller is to give those schools the resources they need,” she said.
How schools are conducting classes has become a political flashpoint. Some school board members around the state lost their races last week because of a divide over whether classes should be conducted remotely or in person.
Two members of the Oak Creek-Franklin School Board lost their positions after facing criticism for not getting students back to the classroom sooner. But the same issue cut the other way in Green Bay, where a school board member who backed in-person classes lost her reelection bid.
Daphne Chen and Erin Caughey of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed this report.