The Spring Was a Crash Course For Schools. Will the Fall Be Any Different?

The coronavirus forced teachers and students into a sudden experiment in online learning. Nobody was ready for what happened next.

It was always a delicate balance.

Schools are more than just instructional hubs where teachers educate average, gifted, special-needs, affluent and disadvantaged children, sometimes all in the same classroom. Schools provide social services, meals and child care. Kids connect with friends and grow up as they learn. Parents rely on that system as they juggle work and family.

All that changed on March 13, the Friday that Gov. Tony Evers ordered Wisconsin elementary and secondary schools to close in the face of the growing coronavirus pandemic.

The balance vanished.

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Homes that had never been schools or workplaces became both. Parents tried to help children learn while still working. Students were cut off from friends and routines they had known for much of their young lives. Although many schools initially provided paper homework packets, they soon realized they had to continue instruction online – a change for which few teachers and students were prepared, says Alan Shoho, dean of the School of Education at UW-Milwaukee.

Until now, virtual classes were mainly a high school option, says Janice Mertes, the state Department of Public Instruction’s digital learning chief. Although figures are not available on how many schools offered at least one online class, only five Milwaukee-area school districts – Wauwatosa, Waukesha, Kettle Moraine, Norris and Northern Ozaukee – offered fully virtual charter schools, serving 1,342 students, according to DPI.

For everyone else – more than 135,000 students in Milwaukee County public schools alone – last spring’s curriculum “wasn’t really distance learning,” says Curtis Kadow, a third-grade teacher at Cudahy’s Kociuszko School. “It was crisis learning.”

Nowhere was the crisis greater than in Milwaukee Public Schools. Of the district’s 75,000-plus students, 82% are economically disadvantaged, with many lacking computers and stable Internet connections. Staffers rushed to set up student meal distribution sites before handing out Chromebooks, says Jeremiah Holiday, MPS interim chief academic officer.

But while meal sites were in place by that Monday, it took MPS until late April or early May – weeks longer than suburban districts – to phase in online instruction for all students, Holiday says. That frustrated some city parents.

“It was amazing what other school districts were doing” with online programs, says Erica Joslin, of Bay View, whose daughter was in fifth grade at Humboldt Park School. “We’re so focused on feeding kids and on those who don’t have devices that those who have food and devices are left behind.”

Some teachers took more initiative to reach out to students, while others at the same schools did far less, parents say. “I totally feel like the teachers were [missing in action] the first few weeks,” says Alicia Walker, a Northwest Side parent whose sons attended sixth grade at Maryland Avenue Montessori School and ninth grade at Rufus King International High School. “They were waiting to see what came from on high. In the meantime, these kids were suffering.”

Walker worries about her younger son falling behind from what had been above-average performance. “He’s a 12-year-old Black kid in Milwaukee,” she says. “The odds are against him. I’m like, ‘We’ve got to keep this show on the road.’”

Then, “when he did tune in, he felt like it was a waste of his time,” with little structure at first, Walker says. At Rufus King, by contrast, most of her older son’s teachers provided more structured classes, she says.

Initially, Brian Eisold, who lives on the Far North Side, saw “very little guidance” coming from his son’s fourth-grade teachers at Milwaukee French Immersion School. “I decided during the distance learning that I would take the lead on educating my student … so we didn’t fall behind, especially on things like math,” he says.

Because Eisold was off work for a postponed shoulder surgery, “I had the whole day to devote to him,” he says. “Every morning, I would wake up before him and watch 10 to 15 minutes” of instructional videos to learn how to teach that day’s lesson.

Other parents had more trouble. With Bay View resident Megan Ryan and her husband working remotely from home, “it was a matter of who could take a break” to help their second- and fourth-grade daughters with their studies from Bay View Montessori School, she says.

“There are some days I wish I wasn’t a working parent,” West Sider Drea Potter-Talton says. She says she sometimes woke up before her three children to start her own work, then spent much of her day supervising their classes from Fairview School before finishing her work later in the evening, after her husband returned from his job in Illinois.

Teachers – many of whom are also parents – faced similar challenges. Several who spoke with Milwaukee Magazine say they often worked late into the evening, fielding email questions from students who didn’t have time to work on assignments during the day.

Some students couldn’t even do that much. Because of digital and socioeconomic divides, “I never had 100% participation,” says Rebecca Mazurek, who teaches fifth grade at bilingual Vieau School in Walker’s Point. Before Chromebooks were distributed, Mazurek says, some students had to share a device with siblings or use a parent’s smartphone until the parent had to leave for work.

Both in the city and the suburbs, parents and teachers found “it was a real struggle” for kids to focus on schoolwork amid family and computer distractions, while some children were “depressed and upset” by the lack of in-person contact with peers and teachers, says Nicole Tentoni, who teaches art at Whitnall High School and Hales Corners Elementary School.

“Before COVID, our son was becoming more and more independent” in going to the library or other activities with friends after his seventh-grade classes at Maryland Avenue Montessori, says Emily Laga, of Riverwest. “He was enjoying his newfound freedom and independence, and COVID just ended it.”

For some families, it was too much.

“There’s a lot of feelings and emotions already with a 10-year-old boy” and stress as a single parent, says South Sider Rae Johnson, whose son attended fourth grade at Maryland Avenue Montessori. Keeping him on a structured schedule “was too overwhelming for me. I just stopped trying,” Johnson says. “I was just overwhelmed by cooking and cleaning and making sure we had everything we needed to survive.”

Like Mertes and all the teachers interviewed, Holiday says the schools did their best, but he concedes, “I’m not totally satisfied” with how much students learned. Speaking in mid-July, as MPS was planning an all-virtual start to this school year, and many suburban districts were preparing at least some online options, Holiday vowed better training for teachers and more technology for students.

Shoho says this experience “could be a game-changer for the whole educational system,” providing a boost to “use technology to enhance our kids’ learning.”

Johnson hopes this fall will be better than last spring.

“We were all thrown into the fire,” Johnson says. “No one knew what the hell to do or how to do it.”


ONLINE INSTRUCTION took an emotional toll on teachers. April Ellery, an English teacher at Nathan Hale High School in West Allis, shared her feelings in an interview and a Facebook post.

“I cried once during distance learning,” Ellery says. She was reading her students’ emailed questions and one wrote, “I don’t have any questions. I just miss your face.”

“I can’t see their face. I’m losing that connection,” Ellery adds. “So much of my energy comes from my students. You’re hoping that spark, that love you have for your subject, will come through. And it’s not.”

Later, at Nathan Hale’s drive-thru graduation, Ellery says, “I was able to finally see the student who missed my face. We cried. It was glorious.”

 

Excerpts From Ellery’s Post

“It’s so much harder than I thought it would be. The amount of time I’ve spent learning new platforms and then trying to make them work for my style and subject of teaching has been overwhelming. And not very successful.”

“I will come out of this a better teacher. I’m learning tons. Every day. Both what to do and what not to do.”


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s September issue.

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Larry Sandler has been writing about Milwaukee-area news for more than 30 years. He covered City Hall and transportation for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, after reporting on county government, business and education for the former Milwaukee Sentinel. At the Journal Sentinel, he won a Milwaukee Press Club award for his investigation of airline security. He's been freelancing since late 2012, with a focus on local government, politics and transportation. His contributions to Milwaukee Magazine have included profiles of U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and Milwaukee Ald. Bob Donovan, as well as a feature about the perennial power struggles of Milwaukee County officials. Larry grew up in Chicago and now lives in Glendale.