By Rebecca Kleefisch, 1848 Project President

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all of Wisconsin, but the hardest hit may be those least able to absorb the blow: children. The lasting effects of the pandemic will remain an undercurrent of our society and government for generations. The move to virtual and blended K-12 education models has been a source of academic blight that has caused deep learning loss, anxiety, and depression. The long term ramifications of this almost year-long traditional educational interruption have yet to be fully imagined, but the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development puts the fiscal impact of today’s K-12 learning loss at $15.3 trillion in future American GDP. Any American expecting a profitable economy to buoy the tax rolls funding future government services or programs should be deeply concerned.

Even without the future fiscal impact studies, we know kids are better off learning in classrooms with peers and trained teachers than virtually with compromised accountability and disparities laid bare. The pandemic revealed disparities that might have remained ugly underliers. The lack of reliable or any rural broadband access, the lack of individual computers or devices for each child, and the lack of parents with time or knowledge to backfill teaching gaps left by difficult-to-understand or unengaging classes have all hampered progress. This is not a teacher problem, it is a platform, technology, and experience problem. If virtual K-12 learning was the best model for American kids, schools would have moved online years ago. 

This moment has also exposed more Wisconsinites to the K-12 disparities that many in the educational bureaucracy have sought to conceal for years. Despite Milwaukee Public Schools, for example, spending $15,250 per child in taxpayer money to educate students, only 10.6% of black students were proficient in English/language arts on the Wisconsin Forward Exam in 2019. For math it was 9.4%. The MacIver Institute detailed the ugly racial achievement gap: white kids scored about 30% better in both categories. This was pre-pandemic. Despite these terrible numbers, minority kids are likelier to be going to school virtually, even though the virtual model is failing. 

While the word “failing” may seem melodramatic, even in a dramatic year, it is the truth. In Oregon, one high school reports 38% of grades were failing compared with 8% in normal times. In New Mexico more than 40% of middle and high school kids were failing at least one class. In Houston 42% of students of students got at least one F. In response, some school districts are bringing some small cohorts back in for face to face instruction, the very circumstances the virtual learning model intends to avoid. Other districts are changing “0’s” to “50%.”  The Madison Metropolitan School District is a school system that implemented such a “floor.” High school students who do not attend class, fail to turn in work, or submit failing work will no longer receive scores that accurately reflect lack of effort or understanding, permanently skewing data and the education apparatus’ ability to identify and fix problems. In addition to the racial and other disparities, failing grades and lowered expectations, we now have data showing two additional issues: students are leaving schools that use these virtual teaching methods and their married moms are leaving their jobs in outsized numbers to assist their kids.  

According to a new study by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, schools that started the school year with exclusively online learning saw a 3% enrollment drop, while private schools (many of which bucked the online-only trends) saw significant growth. For those kids stuck in public schools that went exclusively online, some parents chose to leave their own work to assist their children with theirs. The Census Bureau declared one of the starkest realities of motherhood in the pandemic, “of those not working, women ages 25-44 are almost three times as likely as men to not be working due to childcare demands.” Whether it is whispered or openly discussed, K-12 education is the largest outside source of care for kids in America. According to the National Women’s Law Center, 2.2 million married women left the workforce between February and October, many to help their own kids who were going to school “remotely.”

The great irony is that science has discovered that not only is remote school a poorer option than in-person education, but that in-person classes were not a dangerous choice. After all, some of the very schools that closed their doors for traditional in-person K-12 reopened them to the same students, called themselves “care providers” instead, and charged for the privilege of going to the same buildings they would have used for face-to-face learning. One might note that this was hypocrisy, except scientists have now said that these care models are okay, because studies show there is no consistent risk of face-to-face school spreading the coronavirus. Even a University of Wisconsin study showed high school sports do not spread the sickness, but student athletes forced to abandon organized athletics are increasingly depressed and less physically active.

With a mountain of evidence to show the negative impacts, why are many K-12 schools still virtual? First, there has been a vocal protest of a return to face-to-face learning by teachers’ union leaders. In a now-deleted tweet, the Chicago teachers’ union declared, “The push to reopen schools is rooted in sexism, racism and misogyny,” despite dozens of studies showing the devastating effects of remote learning specifically on minority groups and women. In Wisconsin, the five largest teachers’ union leaders sent a letter to Gov, Tony Evers, himself a former Wisconsin Superintendent of Schools, insisting a “virtual reopening of public schools is necessary”. In Kenosha in September, 276 teachers called in sick in one night, prompting the immediate switch to virtual learning. Employees do not need to report the reason for their calls, but only 17 of the 276 reported Coronavirus symptoms. 

Despite union leadership insistence that schools be virtual, many teachers would like to return to in-classroom learning and even President-elect Joe Biden said he wanted schools to return within the first 100 days of his administration. But if there is a grassroots educator movement to return, what might prevent it? The answer is lack of staff.

The Economics Policy Institute says that COVID-19 concerns could be contributing to an already nagging nationwide teacher shortage. One in three teachers told researchers they were likelier to retire early or leave the profession because of the pandemic. Because K-12 education relies on substitute teachers to fill staffing gaps, administrators might turn to those ranks to backfill in crisis times like these, but those numbers prove equally lacking. A main source of substitute teachers is commonly retired educators. But retired educators are often in a higher risk age group for Coronavirus, or potential substitutes find the risks of returning to a classroom in a pandemic do not outweigh the reward. Over the last several years, Wisconsin substitute teachers were paid just over $100 a day. As the pandemic progressed, however, many Wisconsin districts raised their rates to make a day of substitute teaching more attractive.

While there is no way to determine exactly how many married Wisconsin women left the workforce to be at home with their remote learners, it would be naïve to assume there were none.  It would be equally naïve to assume none would be willing to occasionally teach a K-12 class in knowing their children would be able to return to school. Interestingly, media reports point to DPI numbers showing 120,000 licensed teachers in the state but only 60,000 who teach in public schools. Wisconsin needs more substitute teachers, and there are potential sources.

To become a substitute teacher in Wisconsin, one must have at least an associate degree and go through a five-step process through the Department of Public Instruction that includes ordering college transcripts and attending a training session that may last up to two days. The cost of ordering transcripts from a University of Wisconsin System school may only be $9, but the cost of the training from Wisconsin’s 12 different CESAs ranges from $100-$250. The license processing costs $125. There are no precise costs assigned to the hassle of getting documents, filling out paperwork or hiring childcare while training is completed. 

To encourage more people to become substitute teachers, the state should use some of its roughly $900,000 in unspent CARES money on eliminating the upfront cost of becoming a licensed substitute teacher. If the high end cost of becoming a substitute teacher in Wisconsin is $384 in hard money, Wisconsin could license an additional 500 substitutes for roughly $192,000. While the CARES money is a one-time expenditure to alleviate pandemic-related problems, and is designed to help schools return to face-to-face learning, long-term sub shortages may be remedied through licensure as a part of a different process: graduation. To keep up with demand and assure that all college grads can find immediate work post college, even if not in their preferred field right after graduation, Wisconsin colleges and universities should award substitute teaching licenses along with associates and bachelors degrees until our state has enough substitutes. 

The long term risks of shutting kids out of in-person schools outweigh the risks of allowing them to learn in classrooms. There are Wisconsinites who could provide needed assistance to a safe face-to-face K-12 return statewide.  Correspondingly, Wisconsin can provide the resources and creativity to make this happen. 

Ran originally in Wisconsin Spotlight

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