Will Flanders and Libby Sobic
In the latest chapter of the seemingly never-ending nightmare of school closures, Milwaukee Public Schools decided Sunday, Jan. 2 to return to virtual instruction for the first week of the spring semester, Jan. 3-7. This follows the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) making a similar decision to delay the start of the semester until January 6th. Both of these delays are planned to be short-term as a result of staffing shortages, but neither district has earned the benefit of the doubt. We find it very likely that this may represent the beginning of a longer-term delay. Only time will tell.
The pandemic has caused many institutions to weigh costs and benefits. But perhaps no institution failed more than the K-12 education system. The long-term consequences of closed schools are profound. WILL estimated an economic cost of more than $7 billion to the state from lost learning—representing lost opportunities for a college education, a good career, and a better life. Even more problematic, the kids facing school closures are the same students who already struggle to keep up academically. A recent Fordham study ranked both districts in the bottom ten when it comes to achievement and growth among disadvantaged students.
Talk to any educator, and they will tell you that “catching kids up” isn’t as easy as moving through the year’s curriculum faster. It is one of the reasons that Wisconsin’s report card rewards student growth and not just proficiency—arguably to too large of extent. Any return to virtual learning, no matter how short, must acknowledge the costs and disruption of recent experience.
Then there is the politics of the matter. Research by WILL and others that found that school closures in 2020 and 2021 were not driven by the state of the pandemic in a particular community. Instead, school closures were correlated with whether or not a teachers union was present. Now, in districts like Madison and Milwaukee with strong union presence, history is repeating itself. And some of the most activist unions in the country, like in Chicago, are calling for large-scale work stoppages. This is the reason for skepticism about the current “short-term” closure.
If these school closures are not short-term, parents don’t have a lot of options. The Milwaukee and Wisconsin Parental Choice Programs represent a viable alternative, but the enrollment windows are closed for this coming semester, effectively pulling the rug out from under parents when they have few alternatives available. While in the long-term school finance reform that funds students instead of systems is the way to go, this change is too complex to offer a solution for families struggling right now.
The time has come for dramatic and swift action to prevent the loss of an entire generation of kids. Governor Evers should make use of GEER funds, a pot of federal relief funds that have more flexibility and are at his discretion. He could direct some of his $46 million dollars to programs that are directly helping families access educational options, similar to efforts by governors in Arizona, Texas and Oklahoma.
And if they are going to stay closed, both Madison and Milwaukee districts could choose to do something similar with their millions of dollars and direct funding to families rather than the district. Both Milwaukee Public Schools and Madison Metropolitan received millions of dollars in COVID-relief funds. For example, Madison Metropolitan has received at least $8 million in allocations from the U.S. Department of Education (ESSER) and funds directed by Governor Evers. Milwaukee Public Schools has received more than $55 million just in ESSER funds and another $10 million in funds from Governor Evers.
Districts should be using this funding to create programs and supports for families and teachers to prepare for school closures. This could include access to on-site testing to determine what staff and students are healthy so that the students with the most need can access in-person learning. Districts could create tutoring programs by partnering with university students and pairing them with different classrooms. Funding could also be used to provide additional supports to teachers – making sure that they are prepared for the switch to virtual learning and have the ability to engage with their students. If rolling school closures are the new reality, then districts must be innovative to create the best supports for their communities. A 24-hour notice of school closures is not the answer and districts must do better.
The pandemic continues to force difficult choices. More disruption can be expected. But this isn’t March 2020. We know that school closures and virtual learning come at a tremendous price—one that we should make every effort to avoid. Governor Evers should not wait around and hope this passes quickly. Use the GEER and ESSER funding to give families alternatives and incentivize schools to do everything possible to maintain in-person learning.