When schools shut down last March in response to the emerging pandemic, local schools were sent into a tailspin.
A new report gives more insight into how Wisconsin’s schools responded to the statewide shutdown.
Last year in January, students attended school like normal.
They played on playgrounds, read books and practiced math – all without a mask.
But this was before COVID-19 sped through the United States and ground normal activities to a halt.
In the middle of March last year, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services ordered public and private K-12 schools to stop in-person instruction.
It was an order that was eventually extended through the end of the 2019-2020 school year.
It disrupted education in a major way.
“We started from ground zero and that was a struggle. Still is,” said Larry Palubicki, the district administrator for Crandon Schools.
He said when their district closed in March, teachers started sending packets of schoolwork home to students.
“Because of our limited internet, we couldn’t provide equal access to it, we sent packets home with kids every two weeks until the end of the year. That was it. That’s all we could do.”
Teachers could touch base with students over Zoom, but that wasn’t an option for everyone.
Palubicki estimates 15 to 20 percent of students in the district couldn’t access internet to participate in those meetings.
However, virtual instruction was the main way that schools across Wisconsin connected with students last March.
According to a report recently released by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, 97 percent of school districts in the state claimed to offer some form of virtual instruction last school year.
Only 13 districts did not provide any kind of online instruction, instead relying on pen, paper and phone calls to reach students.
According to the DPI Report, those districts include White Lake, Mellen and Crivitz schools.
Each of those districts claimed that too many students did not have internet access within their homes.
Like Crandon, many schools offered some combination of virtual and non-virtual tools to reach every student.
“They communicated virtually,” said Palubicki. “But for some students who didn’t have internet capabilities…it was through email or phone calls.”
Through this mixed approach, the Wisconsin DPI concluded that most schools were able to complete more than 80 percent of last year’s curriculum.
But district administrators, like Hurley school district’s Kevin Genisot, question whether online instruction makes up for lost time in the classroom.
“I don’t think you could find a school anywhere in this nation that would say online learning is successful and it provides the same as being in the school,” he said. “You just can’t do that. And how long can you do that? And what’s the detriment years from now because of that?”
Now, nearly a year into the pandemic, schools are still trying to provide a balance of remote and in-person learning to make everyone comfortable.
Genisot says Hurley schools tried to implement a virtual option this year by allowing students to livestream into their classes.
But they dropped that option after the first quarter because there were too many issues with the technology.
“It wasn’t sustainable for the teaching staff for the amount of extra hours and for the time it was taking away from the in-class learners,” Genisot said.
Now, the 50 students who were using that option, are either attending classes in person or learning through a separate online platform.
Those are just two options of many that schools have put in place since March.
Genisot said schools across the state are responding in such different ways because the state health department hasn’t provided much guidance.
“It’s a hard one to put out there,” he said, “but it’s a lack of leadership from our health department from a state level. There’s no base line, there’s no grounding non-negotiable items, everything is left up to local.”
Genisot said that’s creating division.
“Picture this,” he said. “You have 72 counties in Wisconsin, you have 72 health officers and everyone comes from a different level of experience, but they’re supposed to make decisions that are uniform. How does that happen? It’s not the same and that’s causing a division between local counties that are making rules that vary greatly from one county to the next and they’re neighboring. That could have been avoided.”