Q&A with MMSD superintendent Dr. Carlton Jenkins on the first day of virtual classes

MADISON, Wis. — As many kids in Madison get ready to begin another period of virtual learning Tuesday, MMSD superintendent Dr. Carlton Jenkins joined News 3 Now This Morning to answer questions from parents on some of the issues and challenges facing kids, parents and the district heading into the new school year.

Here’s what Dr. Jenkins had to say on a variety of issues in Tuesday morning’s interview with Leah Linscheid and Josh Spreiter:

On concerns about the achievement gap growing during virtual learning:
The students who are traditionally falling behind, during the virtual learning piece, they’re falling more behind. So as a district what we started doing last spring, we jumped out and began to make sure that all students had access to technology, including hot spots. Right now we’ve communicated from all of our schools that anyone in need of technology, in need of hot spots, we’re asking that they please contact the school. If anyone knows of any of our students not having the necessary technology, please contact our schools, we’re standing here ready to serve.

What’s being done to make sure students who never logged on in the spring are logging on now?
This summer our team really worked really hard. We had a partnership with UW-Madison where we identified approximately 300 students who did not engage as we wish they would have last spring, and we started engaging them this summer. We’re waiting on the data to come back in terms of what happened with our students in terms of the gaps that might have been closed, but also this summer we had amazing staff reaching out to our students — our principals and our teachers alike — they were reaching out and just trying to keep those relationships going.

As we begin to open up this year, we have continued to look at those students and identify those students that did not engage, and we’re making an extra effort. We know that a large portion of our students that had fallen behind or who had not engaged were Black and brown students and some of our special needs students alike, and we’ve been very intentional — our chiefs are working with the principals to make sure those students who did not connected do get connected, and that we’re also setting up supports for them, because it’s bigger than just the academic piece.

We know some of those students have some serious challenges put on us by COVID-19 and the civic unrest around racial tension, so we’re trying to make sure we establish those very positive relationships, not only with the students, but also engaging our parents as well around these two topics.

How much emotional support is being built in for students, given those challenges?
We’ve done quite a bit on the socio-emotional level and very concerned about the mental health, not only of our students but also our staff and our parents. The whole world right now is facing a lot of unrest because of these particular challenges. And when you talk about that type of racial trauma on top of these life challenges with COVID-19, we have to really try to decompress our students and really engage them in ways that we can address their socio-emotional needs first, before we can get to the higher rigorous learning that we’re trying to have in our district.

So as a result, we’ve set up teams in our schools, advisor/advisees, where we’re going to be particularily looking at our students as we’re delivering our instruction to see if students have some of these needs that a teacher could identify, or even a parent, if you know your child is having a challenge, please contact us, we’re very concerned about making sure that all of our students’ socio-emotional needs are being met and their mental health needs are being met during this time.

There are still some programs being held inside MMSD buildings despite most students learning virtually. What happens if someone there, whether it’s a student or staff, tests positive for COVID-19?
Right now, this is a public health situation and there’s the privacy of all individuals, be it a student or be it an adult, and we will follow all of the public health guidelines in terms of how to respond if something happens. Trust me when I say, as a district, we are prepared on that level, we have guidance that we’re also putting out explaining exactly how we will respond if some case comes up at this time.