MILWAUKEE — Students across Wisconsin are struggling to stay on track with school during this pandemic. School attendance is already down in southeast Wisconsin, and one study expects by the end of the school year children will be a year behind in learning.
Alija Harris, 7, is a second-grader from Milwaukee. The little boy excelled at school before the pandemic started according to his mom, Alida Harris.
"He loves school. You know, he loved going, getting up in the morning and going and being with his friends,” said Harris.
Alija goes to a charter school in the city. He is home learning virtually during the coronavirus crisis. His mom says he is doing okay in this new environment.
"He's a is a very good student, especially when he was in the classroom. He was really good at getting his work done and things like that. Now, it's a little more lax, I believe, you know so he'll do his work, but I think just like any kid thinking we're at home,” said Harris.
Getting students to engage in learning is an issue parents are dealing with, not just in Milwaukee but in schools across the state. Curtis Jones, a University of Wisconsin Milwaukee senior scientist and the head of Socially Responsible Evaluation in Education, studied the issue of learning during the pandemic.
"The conclusions of some of the challenges of what distance learning is and what it does and what kind of impact it has, those seem to generalize across school districts, you know, anybody doing distance learning really struggles with making students motivated to participate and that students attend regularly, the distance learning and instruction,” said Jones.
Attendance is already becoming an issue in area schools. In an open records request, TMJ4 found that during September, October and November of the fall semester Milwaukee, Waukesha and Kenosha all saw a drop in attendance compared to the same time last year. In just Milwaukee, the city saw a three-percent drop - more than 2,000 kids. Cedarburg was the only school that showed a small increase in attendance.
Milwaukee Public Schools:
Fall 2019 average attendance = 89.5%
Fall 2020 average attendance = 86%
Fall 2019 average attendance = 95.85%
Fall 2020 average attendance = 91.86%
Kenosha Unified School District:
Fall 2019 average attendance = 94.34%
Fall 2020 average attendance 94.07 %
Fall 2019 average attendance = 91.95%
Fall 2020 average attendance = 93.17%
This issue, according to Jones, when students are not attending school, it makes it harder to stay on track.
“You have a disproportionate instructional loss for different types of students from different backgrounds and there are not enough resources to then ramp up interventions to catch those students back up,” said Jones.
It is not just in southeast Wisconsin. The entire state is seeing this issue, according to Mike Thompson, deputy state superintendent for Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.
“This pandemic, this disruption on the kids' education, has an impact on their learning,” said Thompson. “One of the challenges that districts face right now is how to track and keep track of students who are not in the building, every day, which is an easier proposition. And how to keep kids engaged in these different learning environments.”
The state as well as Jones admits students of color and students in underserved school districts are facing an even greater learning gap.
“With anything else that we've seen with the pandemic, certain groups are disproportionately impacted for everything that has happened. We are talking job loss, you're talking health. So there's really no reason to think that it would be any different in education,” said Jones.
A study by McKinsey and Company found "students of color may have lost three to five months of learning in mathematics, while white students lost just one to three months.”
And when McKinsey looked ahead at what that loss could mean by June of 2021, the end of the school year, it found “students of color could be six to 12 months behind compared with four to eight months for white students.”
For Harris, her son keeps up and reads above grade level. But she worries about his progress in math while learning remotely.
“I can hear him in, you know, in the classroom. So I know he's getting frustrated or I'll have to stop and say, 'take your deep breath,' you know, because each of the kids probably works at their own pace,” said Harris.
This fall, Harris got her son a tutor to help. It is something the state expects to be one of its strategies to catch kids up as they return to the regular classroom.
"For some, that will be more tutoring and more specific services for our kids that are most impacted by what this pandemic has done it. It is extended learning opportunities for an after-school programming and extended summer school programming,” said Thompson.
Harris isn’t sure how school will change for her son when he finally returns to in-person learning. But she says her focus now is on keeping her son’s learning on track as much as possible.
"It is also a commitment from parents, from me, you know, making sure that he gets online, making sure that he does his work,” said Harris.
The state says it won’t just be learning help students will need as they return to a normal classroom. They also expect students will need social and emotional help. Thompson says right now all districts are preparing to help students return to regular learning.