The Milwaukee Public School Board adopted a plan to bring some Milwaukee students back into the classroom in April after more than a year of virtual learning.

Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) are well behind other Wisconsin schools that have adopted in-person and hybrid learning approaches for much of the school year. An American Enterprise Institute Return to Learn tracker found that as of March 15, just 4.9% of Wisconsin schools offer no in-person learning option.

But the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association (MTEA) has been a committed roadblock to getting Milwaukee students back into the classroom. And in the leadup to a Milwaukee School Board meeting to discuss reopening, MTEA’s Twitter was full of complaints that schools were not ready to reopen. 

Tuesday’s school board meeting heard public testimony for hours from teachers, parents and students. Some parents of students with disabilities and students themselves implored the board to reopen the school while teachers testified that the students are doing just fine without in-person learning. This showcased the significant tension between the teachers union and parents regarding the urgency of a return to some in-person learning. 

Most High School Students Aren’t Going Back to School

The board did finally break with the teachers union’s demands, but only partially. Kids below high school age will have the option to return to in-person instruction by the end of April, leaving just seven weeks of in-person learning for an entire school year. And for high school seniors, who would return last on April 26th, there will be just over a month left in the school year at the time of return. 

But the most troubling element of the board’s plan is prevent high school freshmen, sophomores, and juniors, with some exceptions for students who are failing one or more classes, from returning to the classroom at all this year. Students in these grades will miss nearly a year and a half of classroom time by the time they (presumably) return to school next fall. Missing this much in-person learning at such a critical point in their academic careers, may have tremendous long-term consequences.   

The board also allows for “at risk” high school students to receive in-person learning. But there is no clarity around what “at risk” means or how it will be assessed. Without a doubt, the high school students who are struggling to learn effectively online and the students living in unstable and unsafe environments throughout the city of Milwaukee, are “at risk”.

Teachers Unions Fight the Science on Reopening

For months, the preponderance of scientific evidence has favored reopening schools for in-person learning. A recent CDC study in Wisconsin found little evidence that opening schools increased the rates of transmission of the COVID-19 virus. And this is consistent with evidence across the nation and the world that suggests that children do not, in general, act as effective vectors for transmission of COVID-19. But none of this evidence has persuaded powerful teachers unions, like MTEA, to return to the classroom. 

The fact that unions serve as among the biggest obstacles to school reopening is consistent with research WILL conducted last year. Looking at all the districts across Wisconsin, we found that districts that still have a teachers union in place were significantly less likely to have reopened for in-person instruction than those districts that did not have a union. COVID-19 rates in the area had no effect on decision-making. 

The failure to reopen schools is even more tragic for Milwaukee’s kids than for others throughout the state. Proficiency levels in the district are woeful, often below 10% on the Forward Exam for some schools. Wisconsin’s well-known racial achievement gap is largely driven by a failure of Milwaukee to educate students effectively. A year of lost learning has no doubt only served to exacerbate these problems for kids who are already far behind academically. 

Lack of Urgency Harms Students

While MPS may have earned the headline that schools are reopening this year, the lack of urgency and the exceptions for most high school students is deeply troubling.

In a recent column, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist, Alan Borsuk, wrote, “We are marking one year of the impact of the pandemic on our lives. It’s been tough on so many levels. But the anniversary can also be a time for asking how many more years we will be experiencing the impact, especially on children and more especially on children with the biggest needs, and whether we are doing all we could to help them.”  

A WILL study earlier this year estimated the economic impact to Wisconsin of a failure to complete curriculum in just the spring 2020 semester at more than $7 billion dollars. This amount of money comes from lost opportunities for the generation of kids in school during this time—lost careers, income and general quality of life. And unfortunately, this doesn’t even count the numerous unmeasurable social costs accruing as a result of students staying home and losing critical learning opportunities.

Libby Sobic

Libby Sobic is the Director & Legal Counsel of Education Policy at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.


Will Flanders

Dr. Will Flanders is the research director for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.