Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct a description of Carmen Schools of Science and Technology.
When leaders of Carmen Schools of Science and Technology were considering when and how to reopen schools this fall, they decided to start virtually after taking a look at COVID-19 data.
“At one point this summer, one of our ZIP codes was at 40 percent of COVID-19 tests coming back positive,” said Jennifer López, the CEO of the public schools network. “So we are very far away from the possibility of opening our schools at this time.”
Carmen, which has schools at all grade levels, is turning to virtual learning despite preferring in-person instruction. This decision comes despite a ruling that schools can reopen for in-class instruction if they provide a plan that is approved by the Milwaukee Health Department.
As COVID-19 cases continue to soar, schools are wrestling with how to keep students, faculty and staff safe in the fall.
Although they are not obligated to follow MPS’ reopening plan that mandates virtual learning for at least 30 school days, many private and charter schools in Milwaukee have chosen to start the fall semester remotely.
We checked in with school leaders in our neighborhoods to see how their fall plans are shaping up.
‘Too risky to try to jump the gun’
Milwaukee Excellence, an MPS charter school at 4950 N. 24th St., is choosing to follow MPS’ reopening plan for practical reasons. Maurice Thomas said that’s because Milwaukee Excellence contracts with MPS to provide transportation and lunches for its students.
Reopening before MPS is ready to provide those services would not be safe, said Thomas, the director and founder of Milwaukee Excellence.
“We believe that the situation is too risky to try to jump the gun,” Thomas said.
‘We just want everyone to be safe’
For St. Joan Antida, 1341 N Cass St., the decision to begin the year virtually was due primarily in response to MPS’ reopening plan.
President Marikris Coryell said many of St. Joan Antida’s students have younger siblings in MPS schools, which might affect their ability to attend in-person instruction.
The school serves students from 22 ZIP codes throughout Milwaukee.
“A lot of students will have to babysit their siblings in the MPS system when their parents are at work,” Coryell said. “If we went with all in-class instruction, we anticipated absentee issues because of our students’ family obligations.”
Coryell said St. Joan Antida is planning to host small groups at the school for “social services.” This will likely include student check-ins and non-academic programming with outside organizations, such as Pearls for Teen Girls.
“We’re not going to make a commitment to come back to school by a certain day this fall, because at the end of the day we just want everyone to be safe,” she said.
‘We are re-evaluating what reopening looks like’
While schools like Milwaukee Excellence and St. Joan Antida made the decision to commit to virtual learning early on, other schools waited until recently to discuss remote instruction.
After the Health Department ruled schools could reopen for in-person instruction with approved plans, St. Marcus School began making plans by ensuring there would be space for proper social distancing, schools had personal protective equipment and by replacing bubblers with touchless systems.
“We plan on starting the year with every student who wants to be on campus in school,” St. Marcus Superintendent Henry Tyson said immediately after the Health Department cleared schools to reopen. “We believe we could create a safe environment for kids to learn.”
But as COVID-19 cases continue to surge, Tyson said parents can expect a revised plan.
“It is very fair to say we are re-evaluating what reopening looks like for us in light of recent health data,” Tyson said late last month . “The rate of tests coming back positive has skyrocketed since we began planning in June.”
‘We don’t want to go backward’
Messmer Catholic Schools, a network of Catholic schools serving grades K-4 to K-12, originally planned to open in early October. President Jim Piatt said he would like that to still happen but is taking a cautious approach.
“Infection rates in our neighborhoods are extremely high,” Piatt said. “No one expected a July surge. We expected this in late fall, but not now.”
In addition to considering having in-class instruction for K-4 to K-8 students while the high schools learn virtually, Piatt said that Messmer is exploring the option of having small groups of students come in periodically in September to rehearse higher-risk activities such as lunch.
Piatt says those rehearsals will tell leaders if their schools can reopen safely in October.
The bottom line for Piatt is that once students return to in-class instruction, he doesn’t want to have to transition back to virtual learning and start over.
“We don’t want to go backward,” Piatt said.