In Kids & Family

The hallways may be empty, but teachers across the city are doing their best to keep their students engaged during the COVID-19 pandemic. (PHOTO: Adam Carr)

Milwaukee teachers go the virtual distance to keep students engaged

To begin class every day, a student in each of Kelly O'Keefe-Boettcher's English classes at Rufus King International High School recites a meditation of sorts called "the moment."

"It goes, 'You are here. I am grateful to be here with you. You can leave behind what is pulling at you. You can breathe deep and trust this space. Notice your strength. Notice your goodness. Welcome to this moment,'" O'Keefe-Boettcher said.

During a time of fast-paced news and widespread uncertainty, her students have been reciting "the moment" to each other through a webcam before discussing the play they're reading as a class.

"These are their people, this is their routine and it's unnerving for them to not be in school," she said of her students.

While Milwaukee Public Schools is providing free meals and paper learning packets to thousands of students across the city every day, the state's largest school district is not offering virtual instruction while schools remain closed for the duration of the COVID-19 public health emergency.

Neighboring suburban school districts like Menomonee Falls, Wauwatosa and Oak Creek-Franklin are teaching online, and those districts are providing devices to students who need them.

Within MPS, O'Keefe-Boettcher and some of her peers are figuring out ways to continue some aspects of teaching, without making any work required. Part of their reasoning is that so many students in Milwaukee Public Schools may not have access to the internet or the necessary devices at home to complete assignments.

"Unless you can guarantee that everyone has access, no matter what we do it's not totally equitable," O'Keefe-Boettcher said of teaching online. "You're creating a difference between the haves and the have nots."

O'Keefe-Boettcher has been meeting with some students online every day since schools closed, checking in, sharing optional learning materials like videos and slideshows and just chatting.

According to U.S. Census Bureau data from 2017, about 1 in 6 households in Milwaukee do not have a computer, and nearly 30% of households do not have internet subscriptions.

Of the more than 75,000 students served by Milwaukee Public Schools, 84% are deemed economically disadvantaged by the Department of Public Instruction.

In addition to not having the tools needed to learn virtually, O'Keefe-Boettcher said she's doing her best to consider other challenges her students are facing at this time as well.

For example, some who have younger siblings are providing all-day childcare while parents continue to work, and those who usually have individualized learning plans aren't getting the support they need. Throughout the district, 1 in 5 students receive special education services.

"There's this beautiful saying I love, 'We make the road by walking,'" she said. "And that's what we're doing right now (when schools are closed). We're making this road, and we're moving the boulders, and we're looking behind and asking, 'Who's not on the road yet, and who needs a bike to help them get here?'"

She's not the only teacher going above and beyond to be there for her students.

"I'm worried about them"

Amber Gillaspie has been holding morning and afternoon video lessons, driving and dropping off homework packets at her students' houses and reading Greek mythology stories over livestream to them each night since schools closed.

The fifth-grade teacher at Milwaukee Academy of Chinese Language said she wants to make the most out of this time so that her students don't fall behind.

"A lot of my kids have made so much progress this year getting closer to grade level, and I really don't want them to backslide," she said. "That's something that happens over the summer a lot."

Besides academic progress, Gillaspie said she wants to make sure that her students are receiving the emotional support they need.

"One of the biggest concerns for me is that a lot of my kids have really bad anxiety and anger and have experienced trauma, and I'm worried about them, because they don't have anyone trained to support them right now," she said.

Gillaspie shared with her students a virtual calming room where they can listen to guided meditations or nature sounds.

"Changing how I teach"

Rachel Scannel's students are too young to engage in an online chat. Most of the 3-year-olds she works with at Zablocki Community School have significant delays in their speech and language skills.

The school speech pathologist has been creating videos of herself making different speech sounds to share with parents.

For example, to practice an "S" sound, Scannel made a scavenger hunt challenge asking the kids to find a spoon, a pair of socks and sunglasses, and practice saying the words.

"This is a stressful, hard time for all of us, but I want to make sure (the parents) feel like they can help their kids as well," she said.

Scannel said that making tools for parents has made her look at her job differently and that she may work more with family members in the future.

"It's changing how I teach going forward," she said.

"This is an opportunity"

Elissa Werve is helping make sure her students at Bay View High School are going to graduate, even if they may not get to walk across a stage.

The English teacher has been reaching out to encourage students to complete makeup work and finish all assignments they may have missed.

"If seniors are failing, this is an opportunity to get them passing," she said.

Parents and students have sent her questions on Facebook Messenger, and some students are even sending her jokes, trying to add some levity to the situation.

"I want to make a space so they can talk, even not about academics," she said. "And to help them get information and resources. There's so much uncertainty for a lot of these families."

One of Werve's biggest concerns is that her students may not have access to the mental health resources they need while not in school.

"This is going to cause undue stress for students who have already experienced trauma," she said.

While challenging, Werve said she's seen a lot of collaboration and resilience among her fellow teachers.

"It's given a chance for educators to come together to look for solutions for our students," she said. "It's shown the nation that we are more than just educators. We provide a lot of other services for students, and I think families are now realizing how much the district provides our students on a day-to-day basis."

Learning resources

If you want to help a student you know continue to learn during the COVID-19 pandemic, here are some resources you can use:

  • Digital Bridge is offering low-cost devices like laptops and desktop computers for Milwaukee students and families who need them.
  • Companies like Spectrum are offering free Wi-Fi for lower income students and families.
  • Milwaukee Public Schools is offering optional online enrichment materials.
  • Milwaukee Public Libraries is offering online library resources and information, including eBooks, audiobooks, music, video and online resources, 24/7 for library cardholders and all MPS students. The library is also offering homework help through LibraryNOW.
  • Milwaukee County's Children's Mobile Crisis Team/Trauma Response Team is still working to support youth and families. The hotline is 414-257-7621.
  • Several youth-serving organizations in the city are continuing to engage with young people remotely.

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