The coronavirus was brand new and spreading fast on March 18, 2020. On that day, out of an abundance of caution, Governor Tony Evers ordered all Wisconsin schools closed until April 6, 2020. What was meant to only last a few weeks continued to keep many Wisconsin schools closed to in-person education for over a year.

Nearly every school experienced disruption to their curriculum over almost two years of pandemic mitigation. For a state with already low proficiency rates, the disruption is devastating.

In the 2018-19 school year, before the pandemic, 40.8% of Wisconsin students were proficient in reading and 43.4% were proficient in math, according to results from the statewide Forward Exam. On top of that, Wisconsin already had the nation’s largest achievement gap between black and white students in 2019.

Not only did the pandemic exaggerate those shortcomings, but state data shows a significant amount of Wisconsin students are now entirely disengaged from their education. Forward Exam data revealed that over 50% of students in the Milwaukee Public School District and in the Madison Metropolitan School District didn’t participate in state mandated testing in 2021. That’s over 15,000 students in Milwaukee alone who MPS still couldn’t successfully educate, even after receiving $770 million in federal COVID relief. As far as the state knows, those 15,000 students may not have been participating at all in their education for nearly 2 years.

It seems that those in some of Wisconsin’s biggest school districts—the ones who experience the worst academic achievement and the greatest racial achievement gaps in the state, the ones that could least afford to be disengaged from their education—were the ones most affected by their school districts disengaging from the student’s success. That loss will result in lost income, lost job opportunities, lost degrees, and lost prosperity, perhaps for the rest of these students’ lives.

The state’s biggest school districts weren’t the only ones affected by learning loss during the pandemic, though. Most schools experienced the same. Their 2021 Forward Exam results show the consequences: schools statewide reported a record high percent of their kids not taking the Exam at all. The kids that did take the Exam collectively demonstrated some of the same low proficiency scores that Wisconsin has seen for years.

Our youth have been allowed to slip too far behind. Pandemics don’t excuse the damage that this will leave on our next generation.

But there is hope: data and test scores don’t tell the whole story. Many of our students were blessed by school leaders who did whatever it took to continue educating their students in the midst of a global crisis. These are the leaders who kept kids in the classroom, who taught remotely in innovative ways, and whose work held their students’ test scores steady, or even raised them.

Many of those courageous leaders come from our state’s private schools. Already faced with less funding than public schools, less federal COVID relief, and the same teacher shortages affecting public schools, private institutions filed lawsuits, exhausted themselves creating cautious COVID protocols, and fought to keep their doors open amid ever-changing state public health regulations.

Many public and charter school leaders, too, went above and beyond expectations to make sure their students didn’t fall behind during an impossibly disruptive school year. Small public schools in particular showed higher participation rates in their statewide exams than many of their large public counterparts, demonstrating smaller schools’ comparatively outstanding efforts.

These leaders represent the kind of excellence and service that our state’s young scholars deserved during tumultuous times. They set valuable examples for all of Wisconsin to follow.

Sadly, though, the work of many of these leaders is still unsung. We’d like to change that.

School Choice Wisconsin is launching a new narrative series to put these leaders in the spotlight for all they have done to serve their students to the fullest. We call this series RISE: Recognizing Inspiring Schools and Educators.

Over the next year, we’ll feature the stories of Wisconsin school leaders who served students beyond expectations during the COVID-19 pandemic. We hope their example will outshine the bleak impact of the pandemic and turn our focus, instead, onto those who did the right things for their students when the right thing was hardest to do.


 

Do you know a teacher, an employee, a school that went above and beyond to support their students through the COVID-19 pandemic? We need to hear about them! Please send their stories to our writing team at [email protected], or give us a call at 414-319-9160. We want stories from any kind of school about any leader who you think worked dutifully or innovatively, despite the challenges presented by COVID-19. We may follow up with an interview request to include your story in the next issue of the RISE series. Submissions may also be included in future printed and video publications. Let’s celebrate their amazing efforts together!