State Superintendent weighs in as unprecedented school year starts

Wisconsin’s top educator talks about the new school year, the impact of COVID-19 and racial injustice.
Published: Sep. 7, 2020 at 9:22 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - Schools and teachers around the state face a host of issues heading into the new school year. I spent 30 minutes with Carolyn Stanford Taylor, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, to learn about her expectations heading into the new school year.

Leigh Mills: Many students started school this past week. Others are starting on Tuesday. What are your expectations for students, whether they’re starting in-person or virtually?

Carolyn Stanford Taylor: This year’s going to be very different from any year we’ve experienced, because students will be learning in different environments: virtual, hybrid or in person. But the one common denominator is that all of the adults, the educators who are working with our kids are working towards making sure that our kids first are safe and healthy, and that they’re learning. They put in a lot of work this summer to make sure that the lessons and the plan for learning this year will be one that will provide a quality education for all of our students.

Mills: The biggest question on parents’ minds, myself included, is how and when we’ll get back to normal. How much of that decision making lies with you as the head of the state department versus local control?

Stanford Taylor: It’s basically local control. The advice we’ve been giving schools and school districts is to consult with your local health officials, because we know that the virus and how it presents and the prevalence rates are different in every community, and there are certain stages that need to be met before certain things happen. And the local health officials are the ones who can give you that information about when you might be able to do certain things within your school. So of course you know, we have more questions than we have answers, and that’s been the case since the crisis began in March, when we exited our schools and buildings for a while. We’ve all been trying to anticipate when we might be able to get back to some normalcy, and as you know because we get numbers everyday of how many cases there are, it’s a back and forth thing. And I know students are anxious, adults are anxious, we’re all anxious to get back to a routine. I know that our educators want to be face to face with our kids, because they believe that’s the best way for kids to learn. It’s that relationship building and all the things that go into educating the whole child. So we have to be patient, we have to do the things our health officials are telling us about social distancing, washing hands, wearing masks, doing all of those things. And the more we can all do that, I think the sooner we’ll be able to get back to a regular routine.

Mills: Can you give me any time frame that you think, by this month, we’re going to have all kids back in school?

Stanford Taylor: As you probably know, different communities are doing different things. There are some who are trying face-to-face. There are others who have said let’s wait through this first quarter to see how things work out, and they will be reevaluating as we move forward. And recently, most recently yesterday [Tuesday, September 1] the health department, especially in Dane County, has said that kids with IEPs can go in person, and we’re still talking smaller groups always with safety first and trying to ensure that both the kids and the adults are safe in those environments.

Mills: Since you mentioned IEPs, let’s talk about students with disabilities and the challenges, the added challenges their families face. Now with this new information, are you confident that these students are going to get the services they need?

Stanford Taylor: I know that districts are concerned about this as well, but again, they want to do it in a safe manner. How can they safely bring kids back into a space with an educator so that they’re learning in person? Some kids’ IEPs don’t lend themselves well to being remote, and so that’s what this flexibility is allowing us to do. It’s for those kids who need to be physically present, that we have the ability to do that.

Mills: Does that give you a little relief, knowing there was a lot of push back from this group of parents initially?

Stanford Taylor: There was, and I can appreciate parents’ concerns. But I also want them to know those are educators concerns, too, because we don’t want this disruption in learning for our kids. We want them to be able to progress at their rate and be able to have all of those services and those resources available to them that they would have in person.

Mills: Let’s talk about learning in general. Spring was a challenge for families, and many parents complained that the learning was more of a review than teaching new curriculum. What are the lessons teachers, districts and even you have learned from the spring?

Stanford Taylor: For the spring, we were in crisis. None of us could have foreseen this coming and so it was immediately, how do we ensure that kids are safe and healthy and being fed and that there is some continuation of learning. Every district pulled together resources and assets a little differently, but every district tried to make sure that all of their kids had food to eat, whether it was the grab-and-go’s or a bus delivering to neighborhoods. There were packets of information that were sent out to kids. So since then, we’ve had an opportunity to plan. We didn’t have that in March, but we have been planning since then and talking about how do we get our teachers, our educators, our support staff in place so that each one of them is able to establish or reestablish those relationships with our kids that they were able to do in person. So we have a better plan. I think all of our districts have a better plan moving forward, and what that’s going to look like for our kids and our families. And let me just say, I want to thank our parents, because they stood in the gap. We know this was difficult for everyone. We know that many of our parents are not educators, and we appreciate everything you did to keep your child learning during that time.

Mills: And as you look ahead now, you’ve spend the summer working on plans, working with districts and superintendents and teachers, how do you feel heading into this new school year?

Stanford Taylor: I’m feeling really good about this school year in that I’ve been in communication with many of our district administrators on a regular basis, our executive director of administrative associations with our CESAs, and other partners to talk about what it looks like. We’ve actually made decisions in joint collaboration with each other, questions and barriers we’ve tried to remove from them moving forward. So if they had some concerns about I might not be able to do this thing, how can we do it in a different way? Our agency has been involved in trying to create space for them to do the best they can for our kids without having to encounter some of those other obstacles that they might have.

Mills: What advice can you give to parents heading into this first or second week of school?

Stanford Taylor: My advice would be patience, flexibility and understanding that all of our educators and the Department of Public Instruction wants to do what’s best for our kids. That our number one priority is our kids, again making sure that they’re safe, they’re healthy, they’re fed and that they are learning. So it’s this continuation of learning.

Mills: DHS put out guidelines for reopening schools. Is that document a statewide standard or have districts crafted their own versions?

Stanford Taylor: We worked with DHS to put out a document, which we consider guidance for school, and it’s called Education Forward. It basically lays out some of the considerations that schools and districts need to make when thinking about how they bring kids back. And that’s from the moment a child might get on a bus to entry into the school and how they do that, what safety precautions they need to have in place in terms of PPE, the personal protective equipment, to how do they congregate. How do we create social distancing and minimize the cross congestion with other folks? And so there are many considerations from the classroom to the lunch room to the playground to the buses. All of those things districts have had to consider, but we’ve asked them to keep in the fore educational equity and think about the impact this pandemic has had on our students and our families and who are our kids who have been most disproportionately impacted by that. And you heard me talk a little bit about our kids with IEPs. That’s one group. Our students of color, our students living in poverty and our English learners. We know that those kids have been most disproportionately impacted, so we’ve used that time from March up until this point to map our where our kids are who don’t have equal access to internet or a device and made sure, tried to ensure that all of our kids have some device. We partnered with folks to figure out where there is free internet access. We’ve talked about how we get discounts to districts so that they can provide internet access to their families that don’t have it, and so all of those considerations have been worked on from March to this point.

Mills: I know some families with kids who are returning to school who have shared some concerns that specifics have not been sent out from their district on things like: what happens if kids get COVID? What happens if teachers get sick? Do you expect districts to have their own plans, or are we just saying refer to those guidelines?

Stanford Taylor: No, districts should have their own plan, again in consultation with their local health authorities about what happens. So there might be some space for isolation of students who present once they get to the school building or for staff who present, then who’s the back up? Where’s the backup for that? So districts should have thought through all of those things.

Mills: Is there anything you’re anticipating that worries you?

Stanford Taylor: I think we’ve tried to consider all of those things, and we’ve tried to honor parents while ensuring that we’re following safety guidelines. Most districts, the ones that are going in person, have also offered optional remote learning for kids or hybrid learning for kids, so trying to take all of those things into consideration. But the hope is that we will be able soon to be back in our buildings and students being able to interact with each other and participate in all of those activities that they were accustomed to and again be able to do those rights of passage that we weren’t able to do at the close of last school year.

Mills: One of the impacts of the pandemic heading into this year, as I’m sure you’re well aware, is that some families have pulled their children from public school and put them into private, because they want that in-person experience. I don’t know how the funding formulation works, but I’m sure that enrollment numbers are a part of that puzzle. Are you concerned that that family decision might impact public school districts around the state?

Stanford Taylor: I know there are districts that are concerned about that and yes, it does impact dollars. Students have funding behind each one of them, and so that’s a bit of a concern for especially some of our smaller districts, I would say. But I think again it goes back to patience, trusting that we’re looking out for the best interest of our kids and families. We know that schools are essential to the economy and getting us up and moving again, but we ask that we do so with caution, because we don’t want a situation as we’ve seen in some other states, where students have been brought back and then cases of COVID in schools have had to close again. We want to do this in the right way.

Mills: Social justice is a huge topic right now nationally and here locally. We’ve seen what has transpired in Madison and Kenosha. Is there a way you hope to help guide that conversation among students and schools across the state?

Stanford Taylor: That has been a great concern of mine. To me, I’m from the south, the segregated south I always say. I’m a child of the civil rights era, and it seems to be history repeating itself. It’s a concern in that we have to take this moment to step back and think about systems, and our schools are not excluded from this in terms of what we offer our students. Do our students see themselves reflected in the curriculum in the schools? Do they feel a sense of belonging to the school? As I said, it’s a bigger issue. It’s a systemic racial and social justice issue. It’s through housing, it’s through jobs, it’s all of those systems that impact communities of color. And my concern is that many of our kids will be coming back into our schools having experienced trauma, because of many of the things that are happening in our communities and in our nation, and that we as educators have to be equipped to help them with their mental and social emotional well-being around many of these issues that are out there right now.

Mills: I know this was not what you signed up for when the governor appointed you. As a parent, it’s not what I signed up for either, but I do appreciate your time. And you’re still not doing another term right, no changes there?

Stanford Taylor: No changes there. And lucky I made that decision before the pandemic, so we can’t say it was because of the pandemic.

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