When Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers announced all public and private K-12 schools would be mandated to close Wednesday, March 18, through Monday, April 6, amid COVID-19 news, school staff across the state immediately began to prepare for what was ahead. They couldn’t have predicted this — or that Evers would announce just four days later that all schools will remain closed indefinitely.
“Kids and families across Wisconsin often depend on our schools to access food and care,” Evers said in a press release. “We are going to continue working to do everything we can to ensure kids and families have the resources and support they need while schools are closed.”
Many resources are available online through the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction for schools as they navigate through this unprecedented time. School districts have also been providing information to parents and students on this “new normal,” with some relief coming to administrators in the form of a waiver to the state mandated hour requirement while schools are closed.
“The DPI is taking action to remove barriers that may be in the way of our schools and students during these trying times,” said State Superintendent Carolyn Stanford Taylor. “I am proud of our schools and communities, who remain focused on providing continuity of learning, and providing meals and other resources to students who may need them.”
Before the waiver was announced, districts began plans to use “distance learning” as much as possible to meet those hour requirements outlined by state statute.
In the Barneveld School District, which services 438 students in a K4-12 setting in south-central Wisconsin, a survey was being circulated to better understand how many students had access to the internet as the district prepared to use digital learning. Questions included if the household had internet; how they connected to the internet, whether dial-up, DSL, cable, satellite or a cellular hotspot; and how strong the internet connection is at their home.
The district anticipated “digital learning days” to begin March 30 and asked parents to continue checking their email for updates. Barneveld School District already uses learning management systems to engage students and their families, with teachers adding assignments to an online portal accessible by others in that particular classroom. They’ve also been building a one-to-one technology program in the district for the past several years, with each student assigned an iPad to complete school work and enhance learning opportunities in the classroom.
Similar to other districts around the state, families were also encouraged to pick up materials prepared by staff at the school early last week. Only one person per family was allowed to enter the building to pick up the materials and had to adhere to scrub in and scrub out sanitation policy.
“We really appreciate your patience and understandings as we work through these planning stages,” said Erin Eslinger, K-12 principal at Barneveld School.
Staff and administration in the Mineral Point Unified School District, home to 763 students K4-12 in southwest Wisconsin, held a Virtual Learning Day for middle and high school students on March 3 in the event distance learning was needed due to inclement weather days. They had no way of knowing their “test run” of the technology would give them a “leg up of sorts” during this situation.
“We had left for the day on Friday, March 13, with no idea (Gov. Evers’) announcement was coming. I got home and heard it on TV — my superintendent was just as taken aback as I was,” said Joelle Doye, communications director for the Mineral Point Unified School District.
Their initial plan, like many rural districts across the state, was to bring students in on Monday and Tuesday, with the school closure going into effect on Wednesday at 5 p.m. However, after holding emergency administrative and school board meetings and meeting with local physicians, it was their recommendation to not bring students back to school at all the week of March 15.
Doye has been using multiple modes of communication with students and parents, including a mass alert notification system which can send phone calls, emails and text messages. Updates are also posted regularly on Facebook and Twitter, sent to the local newspaper as warranted and a designated webpage has been created to serve as a hub for all COVID-19 information and announcements impacting the school district.
“I actually think we have some amazing opportunities in a small, rural district,” said Doye.
An investment in one-to-one technology over the last several years had paid off, with each high school student taking home a district-provided MacBook and each middle school student taking home a district-provided Chromebook. Elementary students were also given the opportunity to check out an electronic device if they needed one; however, the district does not have enough to provide one to every elementary student.
Students without reliable internet access at home could also check out a mobile hotspot called a Kajeet.
Charter Communications also announced it would be offering free Spectrum broadband and Wi-Fi access for 60 days to households with K-12 and/or college students who do not already have a broadband subscription through the company. If available in your area, interested parents and students can call 1-844-488-8395 to enroll, with installation fees waived for new student households.
“One thing we take great pride in is building relationships with our students and families,” Doye added. “We truly have a family feeling and we have no doubt that our staff will do whatever it takes to not only keep the e-learning going but also the e-loving for all students while we are apart.”
This family-oriented feeling of a rural community extends further than the school, which often serves as the hub of a small town. While the Mineral Point Unified School District will make available brown bag grab-and-go lunches and breakfasts each weekday until April 3 for any child 18 years or younger, regardless of whether they attend school in the district or not, churches and local non-profit organizations like the Pointer Pantry have also stepped up to fill the meal need for students and families.
“I have had countless parents and community members reach out to me, asking what they can do to help,” Doye said. “I have no doubt our community will continue to be supported throughout these uncertain times.”
Additionally, the Mineral Point Unified School District board unanimously supported the administration’s recommendation to continue to pay the district’s hourly employees through the April 5 shutdown, with plans to re-evaluate if the closure goes longer for a possible extension. It’s just another way the district is showing support for its students, staff and the community at large, Doye said.
For parents who may be off of work and at home with their children during this time, public libraries and local organizations like Family Connections of Southwest Wisconsin have been sharing ideas on their social media pages for engaging learning opportunities that can be explored at home. Public school teachers, who are also now home from work during the mandated closure, have been offering tips on social media as well.
Sarah Fox, a family doctor at the Mineral Point Medical Center, has also been providing updates to those living in rural southwest Wisconsin via Facebook.
“Schools closing will slow down the infection rate, but only if people follow the recommendations to limit social gatherings while those closings are in effect,” she said. “If we separate large groups of children for a prolonged period, the initial infection rate will slow and will allow for time to ramp up testing and catch up with the data of what works and doesn’t work in treatment of this new virus.
“Stay at home — outside time is a good idea, but if there are other people outside with you and your kids, keep a safe distance.”