Monday is the first day of school for most Milwaukee public high schools and middle schools. The rest of MPS schools start on Sept. 1.
It’s going to be a very different year. Milwaukee Public Schools, like many large districts across the country, is starting the semester virtually because of the risks posed by the coronavirus. The virtual learning will continue until at least Oct. 9.
Bay View High School English teacher Jay Bullock doesn’t know how starting a new school year with virtual learning will play out.
“This is like everybody's first year teaching again,” Bullock said. “One of my classes right now has more than 40 kids, so if they all show up in the Google Meet, what’s that going to look like?”
But Bullock does know the first writing assignment he’ll give students. He wants to ask them how they’re doing.
“You know, how has this year affected them and their family and their community?” Bullock said. “So that the first thing we can do is build a sense of community as a class. Because whether or not my students can write a perfectly good argument essay — that is much less important to me at this moment than that they’re OK."
MPS teachers and students, along with schools across the country, were thrown into uncharted territory last spring. The first cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. prompted sudden school shutdowns in March. It wasn’t clear if schools would be able to open back up. During that period, MPS faltered with its remote learning strategy.
“In terms of the spring, we didn’t have as many consistency measures out there,” said MPS Citywide Regional Superintendent Janel Hawkins. “We’ve spent some time reflecting on what we could have done better.”
Hawkins is one of the MPS administrators in charge of academic planning. She says this round of virtual learning will look a lot different than the spring, when teachers were mostly focused on enrichment instead of teaching new material. Attendance will be taken. Grades will be given.
“We've put some academic measures in place that we didn't have in the spring, we're all speaking the same language now,” Hawkins said. “So [we’re] really laying that out and communicating with families — here’s what you can expect in this online world with your child.”
Hawkins says there are minimum standards for the amount of live, also called "synchronous," online instruction teachers will deliver each day. High schoolers will have at least three hours of synchronous teaching and middle schoolers will have at least two hours. MPS has chosen two online learning platforms which teachers will use for the bulk of online instruction: Google Classroom for older students and Seesaw for younger children.
Elhadji Ndaw, principal at Wedgewood Park Middle School, says their daily schedule will start with three hours of live video teaching, from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. After that, there will be a break for lunch during which families can get grab-and-go meals at schools. In the afternoon, teachers will meet one-on-one or in small groups with students while others work independently. Then, there will be virtual office hours for teachers to contact families, as needed.
“If students are behind, they say Johnny hasn’t done this assignment,” Ndaw said. “Help us out so we can move forward and help Johnny.”
Ndaw says his school will be understanding of students who aren’t able to participate in all three hours of live instruction each day. Some older students may be caring for younger siblings while parents are working.
“We want to make sure we show compassion, but we also want to show rigor,” Ndaw. “Because our students are already behind. We want to move them forward, but we want to do it with understanding about the social and cultural context.”
Schools are working to get Chromebook laptops to students, along with internet hotspots for those without internet access. MPS did not respond to a question about how many devices have been distributed, and how many families remain without devices, by deadline for this story.
Bullock, the English teacher at Bay View High School, thinks the hardest part about virtual school will be building relationships with students he’s never met before.
“My favorite part of teaching is when I can sit down next to a kid and talk to him or her about the writing that they’re doing and have that one-on-one connection,” Bullock said. “That’s just not going to exist anymore.”
MPS will continue with virtual learning until at least Oct. 9, according to Hawkins. The district hasn’t given specific COVID-19 metrics that would prompt it to bring students back to classrooms.
MPS teachers interviewed for this story say they’re not optimistic about being able to resume in-person learning anytime soon given the public health outlook. Raymond Duncan is a special education teacher at Marshall High School.
“We’re at higher [COVID-19] numbers than we were back in March. People made choices to have fun over the summer — to have a road trip, have a family cookout,” Duncan said. “People traded one thing for another — they traded the cookout for school.”
Some suburban districts and Milwaukee private schools are attempting an in-person return to school amid the pandemic. In Milwaukee, if two students or staff contract COVID-19, the school may be forced to shut down by the city health department.
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