By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — As public school districts in Madison and Milwaukee bow again to their teachers unions and shut down in-person learning, the chair of the Senate’s education committee says students, particularly low-income students, will suffer for the school systems’ leadership “failure.”
Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) said Gov. Tony Evers needs to step in. The governor remains silent on the subject.
Districts across Wisconsin and the U.S. understand the importance of in-person learning and are doing everything to keep their doors open, Darling said. The Madison Metropolitan School District and Milwaukee Public Schools, however, “continue to shut kids out.”
“Students will continue to struggle academically and emotionally from this lost time,” Darling said Monday in response to Empower Wisconsin’s questions. “Students are continuing to fall behind and low-income, minorities, students with disabilities, and students learning English are suffering the most.”
Madison late last week announced it was extending winter break until this Thursday and reinstating virtual learning in the wake of increased COVID-19 cases and after “intense discussion with local health experts.”
MPS gave relatively little notice in announcing Milwaukee students will go virtual beginning today amid rising COVID numbers.
The districts insist the shutdown of in-person learning will be temporary, but they’ll continue to base their decisions on COVID cases.
Health experts, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have repeatedly advised education officials to keep schools open. Studies have found students are more at risk of long-term damage from isolation and academic failure in inadequate virtual learning models than they are from the virus.
Darling is encouraging parents to “explore whatever in-classroom options they have.” She notes Evers’ deafening silence on the same large school districts locking down their classrooms.
“Governor Evers needs to act and keep all Wisconsin schools open and should use the federal funding that he controls to reward school districts that put kids first and keep their doors open,” Darling said.
Evers has been criticized over the course of the pandemic for kowtowing to the teachers unions that have generously funded his political campaigns. Evers, who served for a decade as the state superintendent of the Department of Public Instruction before becoming governor, refused to call out Madison, Milwaukee and other large school districts that stalled the return of in-person learning until deep into the 2020-21 school year. The same governor who has constantly urged Wisconsinites to “follow the science” failed to follow his own advice when it came to in-person learning.
And Republican lawmakers accuse the Evers administration and DPI Superintendent Jill Underly of working with the Biden administration to stop an initiative by the Legislature that would have sent millions of dollars in federal aid to districts that re-opened their schools. Meanwhile, Evers and the U.S. Department of Education have pumped hundreds of millions of dollars in federal COVID funds into Madison and Milwaukee public schools — much of the aid to be used to help schools reopen and help students who have fallen behind catch up.
MPS has received at least $770 million in COVID funds.
“What have these districts been doing with all the Covid relief money they received?” Darling asked.
Some are calling for taxpayers to be reimbursed for schools that close their classrooms and force students to fall behind.
“Today, families in Wisconsin’s two largest school districts are dealing with the frustrating news that their schools will be closed to in-person teaching this week, delaying when students can return to the classroom,” said CJ Szafir, president of the Institute for Reforming Government. “If Wisconsin school districts cannot keep school buildings open five days a week, then the state should refund the taxpayer money back to families.”
Burbio, a firm that monitors K-12 school data, reported that more than 2,000 schools nationally were prepared to close. According to Forbes, there are about 21 states with at least one school district closed or transitioning to remote learning this week. Reuters reports that thousands of U.S. schools have delayed this week’s scheduled return to class, following the holiday break, or switched to remote learning, as the Omicron variant spreads.
But a new study shows pandemic-related school closures are “deepening educational inequality in the United States by severely impairing the academic progress of children from low-income neighborhoods while having no significantly detrimental effects on students from the county’s richest communities.”
“…(Researchers determined that children living in the poorest 20% of U.S. neighborhoods will experience the most negative and long-lasting effects of school closures,” according to the study, co-authored by Yale economist Fabrizio Zilibotti.
“We cannot shut down schools again. This was our biggest blunder and shame on us if we repeat it again,” U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Alouez) said in a video Monday. “Remote learning is a euphemism for school shutdowns and that is a recipe for student failure. Sitting in front of a screen all day is not learning.”