Corono-Schools: Pandemic Response Varies by School District

It has been an interesting view into the preparedness, priorities, and competencies of various school districts in Wisconsin. Senator Duey Stroebel highlighted some:

As COVID-19 closes schools across Wisconsin, I wanted to highlight school districts in the 20th Senate District that are continuing to educate students using the valuable taxpayer resources that we have entrusted to them.  The 20th Senate District includes most of Ozaukee and Washington Counties as well as portions of Calumet, Fond du Lac, and Sheboygan Counties.

The Hartford J1, Holy Hill Area, Northern Ozaukee, Port Washington-Saukville, Plymouth, Random Lake, and Slinger School Districts have already started a virtual learning program for their students in reaction to the current environment.

I applaud their preparation to ensure our students have the resources they need to succeed.  I look forward to other districts joining their ranks to minimize the interruption to our children’s education.

I give a lot of credit, and cut a lot of slack, to school districts for how they are responding. There are a lot of hurdles. For example:

  • Districts can’t assume that all kids have access to a computer and decent internet access.
  • Delivering education via distance learning is vastly different than in person. The curriculum and planning were mostly built for in-person delivery and it is a monumental task to restructure them for distance learning. A few schools are doing this well. Some are just trying to do it the same way, which won’t be effective. Some are not doing anything at all.
  • For the lower grades, distance learning gets much more difficult. It relies heavily on individual support and instruction, which falls on parents – parents who have jobs.
  • If you don’t already have a technology infrastructure that is built for distance learning, you can’t build one overnight. This is easier than it once was with the availability of auto-scaling and elastic load balancing cloud platforms, but it still isn’t immediate.

There are a lot of hurdles. Some districts are jumping over them better than others.

Since they are my local school district, I have been following the West Bend School District and I have been… disappointed. Again, I cut them a lot of slack, but if we are to measure them against neighboring districts, they are coming up short. You will notice that they are noticeably absent from Stroebel’s press release.

While other districts are already up and running online, the West Bend School District is targeting sometime in the middle of next week to start – and it looks like that will involve mostly emailing worksheets:

We now anticipate distance learning beginning mid-next-week. Continue to check your email daily for updates on which day next week this programming will begin.

1. Our district provides a Chromebook to all students in grade 5-9 for use during the school year. Additionally, students in grades 10-12 have always had access to a Chromebook if they needed one. While our elementary age students have numerous electronic devices at their disposal in class, our practice has not been to send those devices home with students. We are currently evaluating the resources and feasibility of handing out devices to elementary students.

2. The distance learning for all grade levels will be provided electronically via email. If a printed copy of the materials are needed, please contact your building principal.

a. Students in grades K-4 will need to print out learning activities. Teachers will be able to support students remotely during this time.

Meanwhile, schools like Kettle Moraine Lutheran High School is already doing full distance learning with a full class schedule via Zoom. That’s probably the best I’ve seen. Slinger and Hartford are already doing distance learning, but it looks like they have not really shifted to a true distance learning methodology.

What the West Bend School Board is making sure is taken care of is paying staff. I expect that this is of particular importance with three board members up for reelection in a few weeks.

WEST BEND — With one board member quarantined after travel, the West Bend School District Board of Education met to discuss how teachers and other staff will be paid during the school closure, all while staying six feet apart from one another.

Board members met on Wednesday, March 18, to discuss employee compensation while schools are closed. They unanimously voted to pay employees their normal salary up to spring break on Monday, April 6.

If the school closure due to COVID-19 is to be extended, the board would reconvene and take

further action if the closure extends after Monday, April 13.

“We have had several employees wanting to know or are very concerned about whether they’re going to be paid during this shutdown or not,” said Superintendent Don Kirkegaard.

[…]

“Nobody spends money just to spend money. In this case, we’re spending money to take care of the people who dedicated in many times 10, 15, 20, 30 years of their life to us and we want to treat them the way we’d want to be treated as well,” said Kirkegaard.

Frankly, I’m a little torn on this. We want to ensure that the district is able to retain critical employees after this is over and that we are caring for our community. At the same time, taxpayers are also suffering and it is not unreasonable to expect our public employees to share the pain too. If they aren’t working, we shouldn’t be paying them. And we shouldn’t just make up work for them to have an excuse to pay them. I don’t see any reason to pay coaches, custodial, administrators, and good chunk of the classroom teachers and aides if they aren’t working full time. Yeah, it sucks, but it also sucks for the retail, restaurant, and other workers in town who are idle right now and have to pay that tax bill.

With the way budgeting works, the school district already has the money from the annual property tax, so there wouldn’t be an immediate tax savings. But they could save or reallocate the savings to reduce taxes in the next budget when the taxpayers will still be reeling from the economic impact of this. Or they could reallocate the money to purchase the technology and training needed to do distance learning correctly. It appears that the priority of the West Bend School Board, however, is to keep the district staff whole irrespective of what’s happening to the taxpayers.

We will have to watch the long term effects of this transition. Will distance learning stick for schools? It’s not right for everything, but if 20% of a district moves to distance learning, then we can redirect much of the spending on facilities to classroom instruction. And what does this do for appropriate teacher/student ratios? If kids are learning from home, will the taxpayers still need to provide free meals to them? If so, then can we admit that that is just normal welfare and not use our government school system as an alternate welfare delivery agency?

When all of this is over, we will all have to evaluate how our government institutions responded and render judgment. Some will deserve praise. Some will need a wholesale reform.