Wisconsin schools scramble to go online

By: - March 20, 2020 12:34 pm
children at school looking at a computer

Children at school (photo by Lucélia Ribeiro, Creative Commons sharealike 2.0)

On Monday morning, 28 students received lunch and breakfast to go along with a packet of learning material at Milwaukee’s Bay View High School. There were some rough spots along the way; materials for grade nine came in late, materials for grades 10-12 were missing. But parents and students need to come daily to receive breakfast and lunch. Those missing learning packets will be provided in the days ahead.

Milwaukee is providing educational material in an “old school” format — printed paper. The same is taking place in school systems around the country as well as Wisconsin, especially where students lack internet access. Some school systems have virtually all their students online while remote rural areas and economically disadvantaged students have none. This digital divide will accentuate the learning divide while schools are closed down because of the virus outbreak.

Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) already has a web page toolbox called ‘Clever’ which allows students to log on using their existing MPS internet account to find a wealth of educational materials. The district is developing a more informal system of learning for parents and teachers using existing internet school apps.

A Milwaukee elementary school has its middle school teachers using ‘Remind: School Communication’ and ‘Google Classroom’ to communicate with students. Teachers can send messages to both students and parents about school assignments and opportunities.

With schools closed because of the pandemic, teachers are now posting assignments online.

One Milwaukee middle school has about 60% of its students connected to these two sites.

If students lack an internet connection, Spectrum cable in various communities is offering a free modem and connection free for 60 days.

Marie is a special education teacher at another school who showed up at Bay View High School for meals and learning packets for her own children. She teaches in a self-contained classroom with six students, all with special cognitive needs. She has all the personal phone numbers of their parents and is comforted by the fact that all her students have a responsible parent at home during this time of school closures.

Her own third-grade child is in contact with her teacher using Google Classroom. Marie is also developing “lesson plans” for all her own children while limiting TV time and internet entertainment.

Parents struggle to cope

Another parent who showed up at Bay View is David. He has a full-time job and just happens to be on disability during the same time his children are out of school. But he will soon go back to work. His fiancé has the same work schedule as he does and wonders how they will take care of their children. All of his four children attend different MPS schools. Right now, he is going through the learning materials MPS provided, seeing how to use them to keep his kids on track academically. He has set up a specific reading schedule and limits TV and internet time.  

A couple of his kids are also connected to their teachers through Google Classroom. Teachers are recommending activities and links. He gets his kids out on walks in the neighborhood and they play board games as a family.

Greenfield Public School District is providing lunches that students can pick up. Staggered hours have been set up for students to come into school to retrieve items from their lockers, and the district is working on an alternative learning plan.

The Elmbrook School District announced that it was moving to virtual learning the entire week of March 16-20, but will take a break the following week as planned. This will also give the district some time to reassess how the program is working. All students, grades 2-12, have been issued a Chromebook to complete coursework.

Dawn Nordine is the executive director of Wisconsin Virtual Schools (WVS), a supplemental program to support school districts with online learning. WVS, headquartered in Tomahawk, Wisconsin, has an agreement with Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction to offer online courses for grades 6-12 to schools in the local school districts.

Unanswered questions

Nordine sat in a meeting with school superintendents from the Tomahawk area who told their stories and raised questions about how learning could continue if their school districts were shut down because of the coronavirus: How do you make decisions when the news is ever changing? How are we going to serve kids who don’t have internet access? What about our students who don’t have devices? What about students with two working parents? Do the maintenance people stay in the building and work on projects they would normally do during the summer? What are the childcare options?

(Gov. Tony Evers announced on Wednesday that childcare centers must limit themselves to 10 staff and no more than 50 children.)

Some superintendents suggested that school districts need to work together because if one district does things one way other school districts are going to be asked by citizens why their districts aren’t doing the same thing.

WVS provides online courses for districts only beginning at sixth grade. Nordine says it is very difficult to provide stand-alone offerings for students in the lower grades, although many districts and private schools make an effort.

Younger children need interaction with an adult who can direct learning and physical activities that cannot be provided through the internet. Nordine also points out that, by law, Wisconsin students must be connected to a licensed elementary teacher for the lower grades.

Are teachers prepared to teach online?

For older students, WVS programs require the ability to read at a sixth-grade level or better. Then there is the question of motivation. Without the encouragement of a parent or teacher, some students will use a computer learning program haphazardly or not at all.

Some school systems are trying to quickly put together online learning without much experience. Nordine raises an important question: “If the teacher is not prepared to deliver and support online learning, will the student really gain anything in any meaningful way?”

DPI recently conducted a digital learning survey, Nordine says. Because almost all school districts participated in the DPI survey, we have a good indication of the extent of online learning in this state.

Only 16% of districts have implemented some form of Virtual Learning Time, a system that allows districts to give credit for minutes of instruction approved by the state when schools are closed for emergencies such as snow days.  More than 60 school districts are currently working on the development of such plans for approval later this year. That number is likely to explode now that schools are shut down.

Negative impact from virtual schools

Even on the high-school level, only 35% of the students have been assigned individual electronic devices such as a tablet or computer. Just under 50% of the largest school districts in Wisconsin have made extensive use of the Wisconsin Digital Learning Plan, but the number drops to just over 15% in the smallest districts, and about 45% of the smallest districts have no plan at all. A large percentage of teachers from all districts have had 15 hours or less of training in learning technology through their districts.

Without well trained virtual-learning teachers, students will be less productive in  the virtual classroom. A 2015 study by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) found that virtual schools where students have little physical interaction with teachers have an “overwhelming negative impact” on a student’s education. More recent studies continue to affirm those findings.

Credit recovery for students who have failed a high-school class have shown that, while they may have passed computer tests, they have achieved little subject knowledge. That is also true here in Wisconsin although Wisconsin did much better than most states.

In the long run, the digital classroom cannot replace in-person teaching. Many homes have a caring and knowledgeable adult who can supplement online instruction. But in too many cases, elementary-aged students may be left at home alone, perhaps even required to care for younger siblings while their parents are off to work earning money to put bread on the table and keep a roof over their heads.

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Terrence Falk
Terrence Falk

Terrence Falk worked for more than 31 years as a Milwaukee Public School teacher and served for 12 years on the Milwaukee school board and as Milwaukee's representative to the Wisconsin Association of School Boards. He has written for Milwaukee Magazine, Shepherd Express, Science Magazine, Urban Milwaukee and School News.