MILWAUKEE — Milwaukee Public Schools proposed plan for the fall could mean students will go over six months without stepping foot inside of a school, raising concerns about racial achievement gaps being amplified.
A study by McKinsey and Company says, compared to typical in-classroom learning, African American students could fall behind as a result of the COVID-19 closures. They estimate, African American students will lose 10.3 months of learning if closures keep students out of the classroom until January, 2021. White students are expected to lose just 6 months of education during the same timeframe.
"There is a thing many educators use as a phrase called the summer slide," Eugene Pitchford, Professor at Concordia University said. "In a typical format, when school gets out from June to August, there is a theory that we all lose a little bit of academic steam per se. That summer slide has been changed to the COVID slide. If MPS's plan works perfectly, that's another 30 to 45 days. You could realistically go from March until October in this new blueprint. That's my biggest concern. How do we make this engagement at the highest level?"
Pitchford taught in MPS schools for nearly 20 years before accepting a position with Concordia. He feels confident MPS is taking all necessary precautions while maintaining a quality education for its students. However, he acknowledges there are hurdles facing students.
"Having someone encourage you or having a quiet place to work," Pitchford said. "Those are things you have to consider when you're doing an online space."
Another concern is access. According to the Wisconsin Policy Forum, Black residents in Wisconsin face the biggest disparity in technological access.
Statewide, 13.4 percent of Black residents do not have a computer in their home and 13.6 percent of Black residents do not have broadband internet access. On the contrary, 5.8 percent of white residents lack broadband internet.
"It's no different than a utility for us at this point," Wendell Willis, Executive Director for the MPS Foundation said. "We don't need to think of this as a luxury anymore."
For Milwaukee Grandmother Nina Heart, the struggle has multiplied. Her daughter died suddenly in March, leaving her five children with no home. Heart took them under her roof and, to end the school year, on top of the emotional toll, it was a struggle.
"It was chaos," Heart said. "A lot of things, we had to get used to and get prepared for. Dealing with the situation, it was mind boggling."
Heart now has eight school-aged children under her roof. Access is an issue. Her internet is unreliable at best and they struggle to have adequate computer access.
"I have a problem with the internet off and on," Heart said. "I might have to get a big computer for the household to use and take turns. You have to make the best."
Willis says the MPS Foundation has raised roughly $700,000 to help limit the impact the COVID closures will have on MPS students. He says about 26,000 students responded to a survey saying they do not have computers at home and about 5,000 students did not have reliable internet. The foundation is making sure when school does start up in the fall, no matter what that looks like, they'll be ready.
"We know that we will be able to connect everybody that needs a connection," Willis said. "Any student or parent that comes in and says, hey, my connection is not reliable. We can get them that device and it has 12 to 24 months of coverage, depending on which way we need to go as things progress. This is just step one. Step two is making sure that we can deliver reliable content from our teachers to our students. So they've got what they need in an equitable sense and can be 21st century ready."
Solving the technological aspect is one of the hurdles. If Heart's situation is an example, having an area for students to focus could prove difficult. For other parents, they say their kids learn best in person.
Cheddar Hill's daughter Naeonna says she misses her teacher most. The in person learning is crucial to her development.
"When it comes to teaching, every student learns different," Hill said. "Nobody learns at the same pace. A lot of them are hands on."
Hill also raised another issue in his household. He's a single parent and has to work. Hill lives in a ZIP code where 42 percent of the residents live below the poverty line.
"If the city shuts back down and stays shut down, we're teaching our kids at home and al to of parents out here are single," Hill said. "We have to work. Her education is taking a hit now because of the way [the school year] ended."
In order to balance the disparities, Pitchford pushes educators to get creative in how they approach teaching. He says, the biggest factor in a quality education is connecting with students.
"We check in," Pitchford said. "We have to check in with our students. How are you doing today? What's going on? What are the barriers you're having that have nothing to do with education? If we can talk about these things, if I can get that out of you, I can teach you."
Milwaukee Public Schools provide the following free resources for all students to help bring equity to the system.
Online Learning Resources: https://mps.milwaukee.k12.wi.us/en/District/Newsrooms/Covid-19-Updates/Online-Learning-Resources.htm
Free access to library: http://mpl.org/librarynow/