Return to school presents challenges for large and small districts

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SLINGER, Wis. (CBS 58) -- Students within the Milwaukee Public Schools system will log in for class Tuesday as the district switches to all virtual learning with the hope of getting kids back to the classroom on Monday, Jan.10.

Students and staff within the district had the opportunity to get tested for COVID-19 Monday, Jan. 3 at different locations throughout the city, something Superintendent Dr. Keith Posley says will continue to be made available.

"We had hoped that we wouldn't be in this situation," Dr. Posley explained, regarding the decision to go back to all-virtual learning. "That's our goal; to make sure that we have this set up so that we can take a look at the data to inform our decisions about what we need to do, whether it's virtual learning or in-person learning."

Twenty-five miles northwest in Slinger, the small district's 3,450 students returned to in-person learning Monday. Still, the administration was presented with some big challenges that include a shortage of substitute teachers and bus drivers.

"Already this morning, I received a call from the bus company at 5 a.m. that they were short drivers," Superintendent Daren Sievers explained. "We had to combine some routes, reassign some drivers to cover some routes where there were shortages."

CBS 58 reached out to Riteway regarding the bus driver shortage to see if any other districts were impacted. We have yet to hear back.

Despite that challenge, Sievers says the district's biggest concern is the lack of substitute teachers available.

"Obviously, the health and safety of our children is priority one in Slinger," Sievers said, adding that attendance during the 2021-22 school year has been exceptionally well. "What has been more challenging has not been the number of students that are positive, it has been the sub shortage for when staff are positive themselves or have a positive family member that they have to stay home with and care for."

Sievers says the district only has about 60% of the subbing vacancies filled due to the shortage, adding that it forces staff members that are healthy to cover for those that are out with illness.

"Our staff has been amazing as far as covering for each other," Sievers said. "Middle school, high school are fully staffed with subs because teachers so selflessly and willingly jumped in to cover for their peers, but it takes its toll. They're barely keeping their heads above water because so much is asked of them day to day with the sub shortage."

According to Sievers, this can impact the amount of time teachers have to prepare future lessons. It also cuts into meeting times with other teachers to discuss what adjustments need to be made to the curriculum based on student strengths and struggles.

Despite the challenges, Sievers says the chance of returning to virtual learning, like MPS, is not on the radar in Slinger.

"We're going to do everything we can to avoid going back to what happened in March, April and May of 2020," Sievers explained. "We're still recovering from learning loss and skill development gaps that children were deprived of. There's just no substitute for that quality and rich in-person learning. It just can't be duplicated on a laptop for the long term."

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