MMSD announces plans for an all-virtual start to the school year

MADISON, Wis. — The Madison Metropolitan School District announced it will start the school year this fall virtually.

According to a press release, the district will review options every quarter of the school year until COVID-19 conditions improve.

“On March 13, we made the incredibly difficult decision to close schools for the safety of our students, staff and families and to prevent further spread of COVID-19,” said Interim Superintendent, Jane Belmore. “Today as local cases continue to surge, and the ongoing analysis of public health data to provide guidance on how to implement requirements they expect schools to have in place to open safely, has left us with limited options. As Interim Superintendent, the safety of everyone who enters our school buildings each day is my ultimate responsibility, there can be no margin of error in our decisions to keep students, staff as well as our entire community safe.”

This comes after Madison Teachers Inc. requested that the district move to an all-virtual model Thursday.

Rachel Zajac, who teaches 5th graders at Olson Elementary, said she is “relieved.”

“It felt like a giant weight had been lifted off my shoulders. There was so much anxiety in the teaching community about what decision was going to be made. As a teacher, the hybrid model seemed both dangerous and unproductive.”

Zajac has been teaching for two years. She said MTI sent out a survey to all its members and “96% of the responders said they they wanted all virtual for safety reasons.”

MMSD has been preparing three options for the 2020/2021 school year: all-virtual learning, all in-person learning, and a hybrid model that is a blend of both in-person and virtual. Belmore added that moving forward, decisions will be made on a quarterly basis considering all three options.

“MMSD will continue its planning for a return to in-person learning as soon as it is determined to be safe for students and staff to do so,” said Belmore. “Recognizing this is a community effort, we will be providing as much advance notice to families as possible so that they can plan accordingly for things like childcare and work schedules. We are committed to informing families as far in advance as we are able, therefore it is our hope that decisions will be made two to three weeks prior to the start of each school year quarter, and it is our hope that conditions improve enough for us to begin to return November 3.”

Zajac said, “The teaching community is very relieved. We’re very thankful for the actions and steps that were taken. Hopefully we will be more prepared and our students will feel more comfortable and safe.”

Belmore added that MMSD recognizes the challenges that an all virtual start to the school year has on the community, and during this time the district will work proactively to partner with our families to support students when not engaged with in-person instruction.

“We do understand the burden that this puts on many families in terms of childcare and work and we have had a model in place this summer fro MSCR camps,” Belmore said.  “It has been a childcare model that we are going to explore to see if that can be maintained or expanded.”

MMSD has spent months developing its all virtual learning and hybrid models and remains committed to its equity vision in its plan designs by putting its most marginalized communities at the forefront. Since the start of virtual learning, MMSD has provided 225,000 meals to families, distributed 11,00 devices and supported all district staff and educators in virtual learning.

Zajac said, “We want to come back. We miss our kids so much. We miss being in the building. We miss interacting with our families and getting to know our kids on a different level. But for the safety of everybody, we all knew that this was the best option.”

The MMSD planning team will be working on the following for its start-of-school plan:

● Continued partnership and planning with community agencies to increase childcare support
● Providing teachers with expanded training in online education to better meet student needs
● Providing students with additional training at the start of the year to better support their virtual
learning experience
● Providing increased online support for parents to make it easier for them to participate in the
education of their students and maximize the use of the online enrollment process to eliminate
in-person enrollment events and provide individualized supports virtually
● Customized planning by Principals will continue to ensure the safest possible reopening
● Continue providing free meals at the current distribution locations
● Continue its work to provide strong rigorous virtual learning instruction and planning for the
hybrid learning model
● Continue to assess available data and make adjustments accordingly knowing that families need
lead time to make arrangements should we change our learning model
● Finalizing a process to determine limited face to face instruction for students with disabilities
whose programs can not be implemented virtually

In a virtual press conference Friday, Executive Director of Student Services John Harper said some students with special needs will still be learning in-person.

“The next step in this process is the case managers, the special ed teachers, special ed administrators and principals will be convening an IEP team in August to make the determination about which students are most appropriate for face to face instruction,” Harper said.

The district is still finalizing plans on how to take attendance, how sports and other extracurricular activities will play out, how to make a more interactive education process for students online, how to distribute weekly plans far enough in advance to students and parents so they can prepare for the type of instruction they will be doing on a weekly basis, and how to conduct student assessment on how they can be better served virtually.

District members said hot spots will be provided for students who do not have internet access. They also said layoffs could happen as a result of the virtual move, but don’t have a final decision on how many people this could impact and when layoffs could potentially occur.

Belmore said school will start no later than September 8.