Wisconsin schools reopening? DPI guidance provides little help

The 87-page document contains no directives for school districts as they plan for fall

Martha Siravo and her daughter Jasmine (photo courtesy of Siravo)
Martha Siravo and her daughter Jasmine (photo courtesy of Siravo)

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, public schools nationwide are struggling to determine, if, when and how they can safely re-open. In Wisconsin, the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) issued 87 pages of guidance on June 22nd, titled, “Education Forward: Safely and Successfully Reopening Wisconsin Schools.”

With that title, the public might assume that this document is a detailed prescription for if, when and how Wisconsin schools can safely re-open. Unfortunately, the document is filled with things for local school districts to consider — but not a single specific directive as to what school districts must or must not do.

While some might believe that DPI issued non-prescriptive guidance because of the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision which struck down Gov. Tony Evers’ Safer at Home order, such a belief would be mistaken, as the Court acknowledged and left intact DPI’s order to keep all Wisconsin school buildings closed through June 30th.

DPI states that the guidance was prepared in collaboration with “education stakeholders” and the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. It identifies the following collaborators: the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators, Association of Wisconsin School Administrators, Wisconsin Council of Administrators of Special Services, Wisconsin Association of School Business Officials, Wisconsin Association of School Boards, Wisconsin Education Association Council and the Cooperative Educational Service Agency Statewide Network.

Note, no parent or child advocacy groups were identified as collaborators.

Upon investigation, I discovered that some individual parents and advocates did have some input to DPI’s guidance. One stakeholder, Martha Siravo, who is a parent of a child with disabilities and serves on the Madison Metropolitan School District’s Parent Advisory Council, and DPI’s Parent Council and Equity Council, reviewed the final guidance.

Martha Siravo and her daughter Jasmine (photo courtesy of Siravo)
Martha Siravo and her daughter Jasmine (photo courtesy of Siravo)

She believes that, “DPI missed an opportunity to directly engage parents and administrators. While families are mentioned as a collaborative member, there is not an identified section that is specific to family rights and responsibilities.

“I have a child who requires multiple supports through special education and I am still unsure of the status of my inquiry about how the 2020-21 school year will be implemented for her,” Siravo continues. “It remains unclear if it is my sole right to choose my daughter’s learning environment or if my district can override my choice. 

“Each family knows their child’s specific needs and now, more than ever, should be reaching out to local school boards to share their views on parents’ rights, health concerns and new strategies. Being socially responsible should not be reliant on an ‘honor’ system.”

DPI Superintendent Carolyn Stanford-Taylor introduces the guidance by stating, “the safety and health of our students, educators, and families remains of the highest importance.” Apparently, the education of our students is not as important to DPI as the safety and health of students. She goes on to state, contrary to the clear authority which DPI has to dictate school openings and closings, that, “Under state law, school districts determine the operations of their buildings and the learning environment.” She continues by asserting that she expects schools to reopen this fall.

Carolyn Stanford Taylor via DPI media page official headshot
Superintendent Carolyn Stanford Taylor

Unfortunately, because DPI’s complex guidance contains no directives, it leaves 421 school districts, 26 independent charter schools and 792 private schools — serving a school-age population of over a million students in Wisconsin — to fend for themselves to figure out what they will do regarding reopening schools in the fall.

The result could be a patchwork of inconsistency leaving decisions to locally elected school boards with little to no expertise in grappling with this problem.

DPI asserts what it often says, that it  “is committed to every student receiving an equitable education — regardless of learning environment — so all students have the skills, habits, and dispositions to graduate career and college ready.”

The irony in this assertion, of course, is that Wisconsin’s racial gap is one of the worst in the country in multiple areas: reading, graduation and discipline. This guidance does not appear to do anything to help close those gaps, and arguably, the continuation of distance learning will likely exacerbate them.

DPI lists five critical issues for school districts to focus on:

  • Keeping students and staff physically safe;
  • Caring for the social-emotional and mental health needs of students and staff;
  • Keeping learning coherent by creating a scope of standards with aligned systems of assessments, bound in units of instruction — whether learning is in-person, virtual or physically-distanced;
  • Meeting the needs of every student by considering the unique experience(s)of students and by considering students’ families as active partners in learning; and
  • Designing flexibility into school schedules, built-environments, protocols and norms for being together in-person, physically-distanced and through virtual learning.

None of these critical issues identify closing the aforementioned racial gaps.

To be fair, the guidance does contain a short section titled, “Taking an Equitable Approach,” which lists 10 questions for school districts to address. However, the guidance makes no attempt to suggest what may be sufficient or insufficient answers to those questions, or worse yet, what DPI will do regarding districts that fail to address these questions.

The guidance suggests that school districts provide, “opportunities for family and community engagement,” which is striking given DPI’s failure to engage in either family or community engagement when producing this guidance.

DPI guidelines address physical distancing and remote learning, by merely listing a number of considerations. While some of those considerations use the equity term, even those are lacking. For example, under physically distanced learning, DPI guidelines state, “Using equity — students getting what they need when they need it — to prioritize which students are placed in cohorts in school, outdoor learning spaces, at community-based organizations, and at home.” But, if students all got “what they need when they need it,” Wisconsin would not be among the worst states in the nation when it comes to racial equity gaps.

Regarding remote learning, DPI lists two considerations when it comes to equity. First, it says school districts must be, “Ensuring all students have access to virtual learning resources (digital or analog).”

While that sounds great, it’s well established that many students, especially low income and rural students, have not had such access since schools closed in March, and DPI has done little to remedy that situation. While DPI promises it will put some of the federal CARES Act funding toward addressing these issues when they are financial, in rural areas, that simply may not be a remedy which money can buy due to the vast digital divide experienced in much of rural Wisconsin where connectivity is a serious impediment.

DPI also states that school districts should be, “Identifying students’ access needs, particularly for students with visual or auditory needs or for whom English is not their first language. All materials must be accessible (use of captioning, image descriptions, provid- ing translations).” Yet there is no mention of what DPI will do if a school district fails in this regard. Equally important, it fails to address the myriad of other disabilities, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) or autism, which may make distance learning difficult, if not impossible.

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DPI suggests, without providing a cost estimate, the following:  “All English learner, special education, gifted and talented, and resource teachers work with small groups of students to reduce the student-teacher ratios to 10/1 or fewer in each learning environment.” Based on the pre-pandemic public education budget shortfalls, it is truly hard to imagine how any school district can accomplish these ratios district-wide.

The guidance continues with dozens of pages of possible educational scenarios that school districts should “review, prepare, and implement” which are truly dizzying in their scope and lack of mandate. As John Ashley, the executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, is quoted saying in the document, “School board members are, by nature, generalists rather than professional educators.”

While the guidance does contain a six-page section addressing special education, it is suggestive and — again — not prescriptive, even though, as the guidance acknowledges that nothing has changed in federal or state law regarding the obligation of school districts to provide a free appropriate public education-known as, “FAPE” to students with disabilities.

Prior DPI guidance suggested that many students with disabilities may be entitled to “additional services” (DPI’s term for the legally required compensatory education when students with disabilities are denied a free, appropriate public education), and the new guidance refers to that once again. But, school districts will need funds to provide these additional compensatory services, and parents and children will need advocates to push for them.

There are also sections for English learners and gifted and talented learners (DPI’s term), but once again, everything is suggestive, not mandated.

Gov. Tony Evers at a virtual news conference on 4/6/20 after he delays the April 7 election. (And before the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturns his order.)
Gov. Tony Evers at a virtual news conference

In Tuesday’s press briefing, Evers confirmed that school districts have multiple options, including smaller class sizes that he said, “may or may not” require more funding. He acknowledged that there would be “additional costs,” for testing which neither he nor DPI have quantified, although he stated that the state recently provided an additional $42 million to schools. However, he conceded that this funding would not “cover every cost” which schools will incur to educate children during the pandemic.

DPI has just presented Wisconsin with what can best be described as 87 pages of bureaucratese, which is likely to cause more confusion rather than provide assistance to school districts, parents and children, as they struggle with educating their children during a pandemic.

The Assembly Committee on Education will hold an information hearing Wednesday at 10 a.m. on K-12 reopening guidance. The committee will hear testimony from invited speakers only. While seating is limited, the public can observe the hearing in the State Capitol Rotunda or on  WisconsinEye.