Gov. Tony Evers’ announcement Thursday that schools will not reopen for the 2019-20 school year doesn’t change much for the schools themselves.
They’ll continue as they have been, feeding families and ramping up their digital learning platforms. They’ll reschedule proms and graduation ceremonies, and approve new grading scales and systems for awarding class credits.
But the news came as a blow for many parents and teachers who’d held out hope that students might return to the classroom yet this year.
“I can’t stop crying,” said Meredith Grob Polewski, a kindergarten teacher at Milwaukee’s Neeskara Elementary School, who has been posting YouTube videos for her students since the shutdown began last month.
“I know it’s the right thing to do. I know it is. But I think it’s finally hit me … that I won’t be able to see my kids again,” she said. “Looking at my Facebook right now, teachers are pretty broken-hearted. It’s just hitting us right now that we won’t get a chance to say goodbye.”
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Evers said Thursday that schools would remain closed this year as part of a broader decision to amend and extend his safer at home order through May 26.
The order means more than 1 million students will remain out of schools across the state, possibly until the fall. Decisions about summer school are still being made. Many worry the extended closure will only exacerbate the already gaping opportunity and achievement gaps among students, particularly those along racial and socioeconomic lines.
The news is likely particularly difficult for high school seniors, who’ve lost many of their milestone moments to the shutdown and worry about what it means for college; and parents who’ve struggled to keep their children on track academically — some of whom could be required to return to work under new provisions of the order.
“I had a feeling it was coming. But it’s still really sad,” said Jessica Salas, who has a kindergartner and first-grader at Milwaukee Spanish Immersion School. “I love my kids’ teachers. And you just feel so frustrated that you don’t get the whole year with.”
A graphic artist, Salas has struggled to balance her work and her children’s classwork.
“This isn’t homeschooling,” she said. “It’s multitasking at its worst.”
Autumn Mays, a senior at Milwaukee’s Rufus King High School, said she’s disappointed but understands the need to keep schools closed.
“We want to be able to get back to the way it was,” she said. “Even at the sacrifice of our prom, our graduation — and I hate to say that — I just hope everything goes back to normal, so we can say our goodbyes before we go off to college.”
School leaders said they were disappointed by the announcement, but not surprised.
“It was not unexpected. We’ve been planning for it,” Wauwatosa School District Superintendent Phil Ertl said. “It’s kind of heartbreaking but not unexpected.”
“We’re moving forward as planned,” said Keith Posley, superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools, which is in the process of rolling out a more comprehensive virtual learning program and planned to release Thursday new information on grading, credits and graduation requirements.
Many districts had already pivoted to online learning, though the experience, standards and participation have varied across the state. It has been an easier transition for smaller and more affluent districts, where students are more likely to have digital devices and WiFi in their homes, where there are fewer teachers to train, and where there is a virtual infrastructure already in place.
Some of the state’s largest districts, including Milwaukee, Green Bay and Madison, have been slower to move into consistent teacher-led content.
MPS with about 75,000 students and 5,000 teachers, started with paper workbooks and online resources families can access and some programming initiated by teachers. MPS has begun laying the groundwork for teacher-led programming districtwide. But Posley said Wednesday that the launch of that would be at least four weeks away.
MPS has been surveying families about their need for devices and internet connectivity. And it has begun distributing Chromebooks and hotspots to those who need them. But the response has been muted so far.
As of Wednesday, only 12,000 families had responded to the survey. Of those, about 60% needed devices and 23% needed internet services. A large number required both.
Also this week, Posley notified teachers and other staff that they would be expected to work remotely, beginning Thursday for those in middle and high schools and April 22 for those at elementary schools.
The memo spelled out expectations for interactions with colleagues and students, including responding to voice mails and emails within 24 hours. And it said staff would begin reviewing grades and student data “to make decisions about learning based on student proficiency levels.”
The same memo said some staff members would be required to report physically to their buildings on April 27. But the district said it is revisiting that requirement in light of the governor’s order.
Some schools had already begun delaying proms and graduations and made plans for virtual commencement ceremonies.
In Racine, for example, it plans to hold digital graduation ceremonies on the regularly scheduled dates, but it pushed in-person commencements into August.
In Brown Deer, Superintendent Deb Kerr said the governor’s order “gives us some clarity so we can continue planning.”
She said the district has begun distributing Chromebooks to families and is “refining” its online offerings. It’s still in the process of determining how it will award credits, but it has decided at least for middle school to go with a pass/incomplete grading scale.
“Nobody is going to fail because of this pandemic,” Kerr said. “No kid is going to be marginalized because of this. We want to give students every opportunity to master the course.”
Contact Annysa Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 414-224-2061. Follow her on Twitter at @JSEdbeat. And join the Journal Sentinel conversation about education issues at www.facebook.com/groups/WisconsinEducation.