K-12 Public Education During Covid-19 – Part I

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Covid-19 has impacted the state on several levels and the impact to K-12 education is no different. The Wheeler Report is starting a new series looking at the issues impacting K-12 education in Wisconsin from where the situation started, to issues schools are addressing, to what lies ahead in the fall.

On March 13 schools were closed by Governor Evers, effective March 18, with an anticipated opening date of April 6. While the schools received little notice of closing and were given little guidance as to what they should expect next, the districts worked quickly to coordinate as much as they could as quickly as they could. Some schools were starting their spring break, other schools were still a week or two away. The order from the Governor granted schools a three-day grace period before closing to help schools and families to prepare for the closing, yet some schools decided to close right away. Over the next month, the status of the schools reopening would be constantly changing until it was ultimately ordered by DHS they would not return for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year.

Priority Number One

While closing schools meant students would not be in the classrooms, it did not mean the schools would stop providing services to the students. The first priority for school districts was stabilization of the students and their families. For some families it meant the students would be home all day, every day. Many daycares were closed, while others still operating faced limits on the number of students they could serve, so parents, if still working outside the home, had to scramble for daycare. Other parents lost their jobs because of the virus meaning even more instability at home.

As schools closed, they looked to ensure the students would have their basic needs met, which meant schools needed to figure out how to get food to students district wide. In 2001 in Wisconsin, 21% of Wisconsin students were eligible for free or reduced lunch, in 2019 that number was 41%. Statewide, one in four districts have student populations that are more than 50% economically disadvantaged. While some may assume those districts are the urban centers, many of those districts are in fact rural areas in northern Wisconsin.

Normally, school meals must be served in a school cafeteria, but with schools closed this wasn’t possible. The USDA granted schools flexibility in providing meals to students, although schools were required to file a waiver to do so. Schools were still limited to providing up to two meals, or one meal and one snack per child per day. And the State approved a plan which allowed for distribution of meals for multiple days. Some schools made box or ‘grab and go’ meals available at the school where parents or students could come and pick up their meals. Some districts put boxed lunches on buses and drove the bus route dropping off meals at homes.

Next – How and What to Teach

As the situation unfolded and it became obvious students would not be returning to the classroom, the next step for schools was to ensure students had access to learning material. Schools that could move to an online platform of any kind did so. Wisconsin DPI has 42 virtual charter schools listed on their website. That means 42 school districts already had an online program up and running and could borrow curriculum and/or platform information from those experiences, but there are 421 school districts in the state which did not have experience with this new reality.

The change to online platforms for teachers was so quick, at first the platform and the content decisions were made at the teacher level. Some teachers were familiar with Skype, some with Google Meet, others with Zoom. Teachers were encouraged to use what they knew and what their students had access to while the school districts worked to determine standard procedures. Many schools made computers and hot spots available to their students who needed them, letting parents know they were available if needed. For some schools, and for some students, online was not an option and teachers reached out by email and phone calls to keep contact with students. In either case, weekly study and instructional packets were printed and given to parents. For those students who could receive their packets by email, they did. For others, a weekly drop-off or pick-up was arranged. Teachers are making themselves available daily to students, but not all the students, or their parents are engaging. Many schools have adopted a once a week strategy. If a student or a parent has not engaged with a teacher at least once a week by email, phone call or some other way, the teacher informs the principal and the principal follows up to ensure the students are alright.

(Part II of our education series will look further at the technology issues faced by schools moving out of the standard classroom.)

Differences in Learning

Simply moving from the classroom to home with online or printed weekly packets works for many students, but not all students in Wisconsin are the same, and the move has increased some disparities. Students that have a stable home with an adult that can ensure they are eating and assist with their schooling is not the normal for many students in Wisconsin. Rural districts have fewer students, yet they have greater poverty. Additionally, the number of homeless kids in Wisconsin is growing.  Homeless kids are considered those kids living in shelters as well as kids who are living in ‘temporary” accommodations with friends or family. During the 2003-04 school year, Wisconsin had 5,354 students who were homeless, in 2017-18 Wisconsin had 18,854 homeless students, and half of those homeless students can be found in just seven of Wisconsin’s school districts. For homeless students and students in poverty school is not always the priority, and often parents simply cannot help the students with their education.

Wisconsin also has students who are ESL students, or students for whom English is not their first language. In homes where parents don’t speak English, or where English is not the primary language, additional barriers can affect a student’s ability to learn from home.

Additionally, for students with disabilities or an IEP (Individualized Educational Plan) simply moving online or receiving packets may not be enough to help the student.

(Special Need Education during the pandemic will be addressed in a subsequent report.)

K-12 education in Wisconsin has had a difficult semester because of the Covid-19 virus. While students, parents, teachers, and school districts are all working to do what’s best for students and public health, bigger discussions about what education may look like for the fall and what schools will need to properly serve students will likely be had at all levels.