MILWAUKEE - Students across Wisconsin had no choice when school buildings shut down one year ago. Now, even as school districts point to the rapid shift to virtual learning as a factor in declining academic performance, administrators are exploring the idea of expanding future online learning.
"Districts that are able to get on top of that more quickly will be much better positioned to meet families’ needs," Wisconsin Center for Education Research scientist Dr. Bradley Carl said. "And conversely, districts that don’t get going with that are going to lose enrollment."
The demand for virtual
Public records from the ten largest school districts in southeast Wisconsin show grades took a hit across the board during the first semester of the 2020-2021 school year, even in the districts among the first to offer fully in-person options.
While there are several reasons, with unique factors in each districts, administrators say the sudden shift to at-home and virtual learning in March 2020 played a role.
"I don’t think it’s so much that there’s something inherently flawed about virtual learning," Carl said. "We had large numbers of teachers that, with very little preparation, suddenly had to take everything that they had done for a period of years in an in-person environment were told, ‘Now you have to deliver this with very little preparation.’"
"It’s harder to engage students meaningfully in virtual environments," Carl continued. "And the speed at which we were asked collectively, K-12 in particular, to ramp this up and scale this up was not conducive to delivering the most engaging kind of content."
Carl cites research showing before the pandemic, demand for virtual learning was steadily increasing. However, he points out those were courses designed for online with teachers who were used to the platform.
In other words, pre-pandemic virtual learning was a far cry from what most Wisconsin students got when buildings shut down.
Some students saw noticeable declines in their grades; some, like West Allis-West Milwaukee freshman Izabella Barrera, did well academically but still found it more challenging to stay on top of her grades.
"While I was in virtual, my motivation really went down," Izabella said. "It plummeted. And that was one of the reasons why I went to in-person once I had the choice."
But some students say they like the freedom of learning virtually. For other families, virtual allows them to mitigate the risks of health concerns.
Racine Unified School District senior Hailey Mattek says virtual learning took a toll on her mental health, but she chose to remain virtual once the school district gave her the choice to go back to in-person learning.
"I have two parents that are both high-risk, and I took it very seriously," Mattek said. "I made a decision to keep my family safe."
"We had several family members who suffered from this disease and several family members that died from this disease," Adija Greer Smith, whose sons attended Milwaukee Public Schools and Mequon-Thiensville this year. "So the emotions of the decision, with the risk of him going to a place where he could bring it home and having an elderly grandmother who is already extremely ill - having to make those hard decisions was something that we had to do and we had to look at it from a safety perspective, with the hopes and the prayers that his academics would not completely fail."
Carl says going forward, the key will be whether districts can offer quality virtual options so they don’t lose families like Greer Smith’s; she says she moved out of MPS school district because she was dissatisfied with the resources available to her son during online learning.
"A parent should not have to go to going to the extreme of trying to move into an area just so that their children can have a quality education," Greer Smith said.
What does the future look like?
In interviews with FOX6, Kenosha, West Allis-West Milwaukee, West Bend, and Sheboygan school district administrators all brought up continuing, and in some cases expanding, virtual options for students next year.
"Throughout everything, we’ve tried to preserve and protect choice for our families and our students," West Bend superintendent Jennifer Wimmer said.
"Our superintendent and leadership is not operating with the notion of getting back to what it was," Kenosha Unified School District Chief Information Officer Kris Keckler said. "We don’t think it will ever be that way again."
Keckler provided FOX6 with additional student performance data, including numbers showing a higher amount of virtual students failing classes than students who chose the hybrid option.
"I think a lot of parents are going, ’Well, then why even continue with the virtual option when the pandemic is over?’" FOX6 reporter Amanda St. Hilaire asked.
Keckler, who previously served as a virtual school principal, said the current data reflects a quick switch to online learning; the goal is to provide a more stable, planned virtual option that could benefit students who learn well in that format down the road.
"Knowing that it’s not for everybody, I’m not going to make a blanket statement to say virtual education failed everybody," Keckler said. "That’s not it."
"I’d be hard-pressed to say that if a student was failing virtually right now, that we banish them to never operate virtually again," Keckler added. "In the same sense that we’ve had students that fail horribly in person but we don’t tell them that they can’t come in person anymore."
As school districts plan future virtual options, one challenge will be ensuring they choose a model that is sustainable for both families and educators.
"My concern is these teachers are going to get burned out," Oak Creek-Franklin parent Jennifer Heiges said.
For the last year, teachers have been rapidly shifting platforms while trying to keep students engaged. They’re already tasked with revamping curriculum next year to catch up struggling learners, all while trying to help students manage increasing mental health issues.
As districts started to give families choices of virtual or in-person learning, the result was often teaching students face-to-face and behind screens simultaneously.
"It felt like the work hours became longer than just that eight-hour day, where kids were able to access you late into the night and early in the morning, whenever they needed," Waukesha South High School instructional coach Alyssa Behrendt said. "And the managing of both students at home and students in front of you was a big learning curve for everyone."
"Teachers are having to do so much more work this year," Behrendt added. "And it’s good work in that they would do it for the kids and we are always keeping the kids at the front. But it’s a lot, yeah. You have the re-teaching the current curriculum, you have the students who are always virtual, you have the kids that are coming face to face and it is definitely a lot to manage."
"How do you avoid burnout?" FOX6 reporter Amanda St. Hilaire asked.
Behrendt paused, then laughed.
"It’s been impossible this year," she said. "Honestly, I think that everybody has hit the wall at some point and needed to take a step away...this has been the longest school year of my life. It’s also been a very powerful school year in seeing the resilience of students and staff. It’s one of those situations where we only come out of this stronger."
Administrators like Keckler say they recognize the challenges of simultaneously teaching in multiple formats, and hope to iron out solutions as they figure out how to expand virtual options.
"This will ripple for years to come," Keckler said.
FOX6 investigates "Learning Loss"
- Part 1: Public records show students struggling across SE Wisconsin
- Part 2: Students are struggling: Here is what WI schools are doing about it
- Part 3: ‘Stranded:’ Honest conversation with WI students about mental health