Students bear brunt of COVID-19 inequality

Families turn to private schools as MPS ignores federal entreaties and keeps classrooms shut

By JULIE GRACE | April 2021

Raul Vasquez just wants his kids back in the classroom. They are good students, and it pains him to see them lying in bed on their laptops for six hours a day for their classes.

Two of his children are high-schoolers in the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). A third — a seventh-grader — is homeschooled, a decision he made last year when he suspected the shutdown due to COVID-19 would last longer than initially promised.

The Vasquez family’s situation is not unique. Some students finally began returning to their classrooms in the third week of April. But for more than a year, parents of the 62,600 students in Wisconsin’s largest school district, 82% of whom are economically disadvantaged, have faced tough decisions regarding their children’s education. Should they keep the kids in their current school? Send them to another school that provides better options? Allow them to attend in-person? Keep them at home for virtual learning?

“They just need to go back. It’s all gone on long enough,” Vasquez says. “If we as a community in Milwaukee cannot defend our kids, then that’s a big red flag.”

Until mid-April, the district’s learning had been all virtual. And despite guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to put students back into classrooms, the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association called any plan to return this school year “very irresponsible.”

The Milwaukee School Board voted in late March for a partial, phased-in return in April. Students who wish to continue virtual learning can do so. For some students, the return to in-person learning will happen exactly a month before the last day of the school year.

For others, including many high-schoolers, the return won’t happen at all.

Milwaukee private, choice and public charter schools and many suburban school districts have stepped up, offering in-person education, some for the entire 2020-’21 school year.

It’s important to note that MPS, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the City of Milwaukee operate charter schools. Some charter schools are completely independent from MPS, receive funding directly and are not unionized. The enrollment at choice and these independent charter schools in Milwaukee is about 36,700 students.

The response of some public school educators and their unions to the pandemic may prove to be the beginning of a decade-long trend of enrollment increases at private, choice and charter schools, says Jim Bender, a government affairs consultant for School Choice Wisconsin.

Although enrollment data for the current school year won’t be available until the fall, many private and choice schools are reporting that their numbers were up compared to previous years, most likely from MPS families that want in-person learning. More parents than ever are looking to alternative learning options, Bender says. 

“COVID has done more to change the mindset than education reformers could have ever hoped,” he says. “The last four or five months where there’s a great deal of friction between the science of reopening schools and the teachers union position on it — that’s only amplified the energy families have had to find other opportunities.”

In-person learning

Most private, choice and charter schools in the area began planning for this school year last summer, before they knew if and when they would open. Schools surveyed parents, submitted opening plans to the Milwaukee Health Department, coordinated technology for virtual learning and reconfigured classrooms to meet the Health Department’s social distancing requirements.

They offered hybrid learning — a combination of in-person and virtual learning decided by parent preference and a 50% building capacity cap for most of the school year. All things considered, principals and administrators thought the model worked well.

“We’ve been hybrid throughout the entire year and have had a great deal of success,” says Jeff Monday, principal of Marquette University High School in Milwaukee.

Marquette High had no confirmed cases of COVID-19 spread in-school, he says. The school returned fully to inperson learning March 22 but still allows a virtual option.

Laura Gutierrez, executive director of the United Community Center, which runs three public charter schools on Milwaukee’s south side, says, “For us, our big thing is removing barriers. The easy thing to do is to stay home, but the reality is that life goes on. When we’re looking at educating children — which opens opportunity and is the only thing that can get you out of poverty — you have to keep moving.”

As of February, 81 choice, charter and private schools were open and 40 had plans to open, according to a survey by City Forward Collective. Combined, those schools have an enrollment of 38,431 students and 4,574 staff members. Only nine of the schools surveyed had no plans to open at that time, and 22 schools did not respond to the survey.

The consensus among independent school administrators is that as challenging as the past year has been for students, parents, teachers and entire school communities, families needed in-person learning.

“Our families are working families,” says Karin Strasser, principal of St. Josaphat Parish School, a private school on Milwaukee’s south side. “Our families and kids need us. As long as we’re complying (with the Health Department) and following the number of cases, we are open.”

Her school’s enrollment increase would have been even greater had the Health Department allowed it, Strasser says. Adam Kirsch, principal of Milwaukee Lutheran High School, agrees.

“I would argue a lot of our families were looking for inperson education,” he says.

Conversely, public school enrollment is down 2.1% in Wisconsin, according to preliminary data. Enrollment was down in all of the 33 states surveyed in December by the Associated Press.

Follow the science

Those enrollment drops reflect a growing concern that districts like MPS across the country are ignoring the science guiding the federal government’s education recommendations. According to the CDC, schools that require masks and social distancing (three feet is now considered as safe as six feet) have little risk of transmission.

MPS’ testing rate for COVID-19 positivity and overall case numbers made the district eligible by CDC guidelines to bring students back to schools in either a hybrid or fully inperson system in January.

As of March, 89% of school districts in the United States were fully in-person or hybrid, according to the American Enterprise Institute’s Return to Learn Tracker.

There is a growing body of research indicating that students in the fully remote districts, especially poor and atrisk kids who need the structure and stability of in-person classes, are suffering.

Nine in 10 Wisconsin schools surveyed in March by USA Today Network reported increased failure rates among high school students last fall. MPS reported that three in 10 of its high-schoolers failed courses. Most schools blamed that on virtual learning.

“Why is it that the suburban schools could open?” Gutierrez asks. “Those children with the most affluent families continue to thrive, but our students would not. That was a big decision factor for us.”

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) is not required to report achievement data for this school year, so the shortterm impacts of the pandemic and virtual learning are still unclear.

But according to one McKinsey & Company study, students could lose as much as nine months to a year of learning in math by the end of the school year.

Another McKinsey & Company study found that students could lose between $61,000 to $88,000 in lifetime earnings from learning losses. The CDC has reported increased mental health visits for children and increased numbers of kids suffering from anxiety and depression. The full impact of virtual learning is certainly not yet known, but preliminary studies show grim results.

Going forward

It is uncertain how long it will be before the Milwaukee School Board, its teachers and union change their stance on in-person learning, but it is clear that private, choice and charter schools and their students will be the beneficiaries.

“People have never entertained the thought of sending their kid to a choice school for multiple reasons. This year, however, has thrown a wrench in that,” says Bender. “I think many people have permanently changed the way they view education.”

Julie Grace is a policy analyst in the Badger Institute’s Center for Opportunity. Permission to reprint is granted as long as the author and Badger Institute are properly cited.

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