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Second grade student Mason Fiore does classwork while next to a laptop with images of students working at home Sept. 4, 2020 at Lake Country School in Hartford. (Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel). Second grade student Mason Fiore does classwork while next to a laptop with images of students working at home Sept. 4, 2020 at Lake Country School in Hartford. (Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel).

Second grade student Mason Fiore does classwork while next to a laptop with images of students working at home Sept. 4, 2020 at Lake Country School in Hartford. (Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel).

Madeline Heim
By Madeline Heim March 29, 2021

Yes, there are just a few Wisconsin school districts still doing largely virtual learning

If Your Time is short

  • A USA TODAY Network-Wisconsin survey found every school district in the state has at least some in-person learning as of March

  • Milwaukee Public Schools and the Madison Metropolitan School District are the last districts to remain largely virtual, though both have plans to bring students back in April

Wisconsin students, parents and educators shouldered a heavy burden over the past year: A patchwork of in-person, hybrid and virtual schooling as the coronavirus devastated the state.

Last March, Gov. Tony Evers closed K-12 schools in an attempt to limit the spread of the virus. A closure meant to last two weeks ended up lasting till the school year’s end, and in the fall, only some returned to the classroom full-time.

Reopening decisions have been fraught with controversy. In Madison, teachers taught outside school buildings in early March 2021 to protest their district’s plan to resume in-person learning, arguing it should have been postponed until staff could get vaccinated.

On the flip side, in early February Republicans in the state Legislature moved to send $66 million in federal aid to schools already holding in-person classes. "The bottom line is our kids need to be in school," state Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, said at the time.

Evers has said he wants the decision to reopen to be left up to individual school districts because those officials will best understand how much of a threat COVID-19 poses in their community, a stance in line with Wisconsin’s status as a local-control state.

Appearing on Capital City Sunday on March 14, 2021, the governor said he’s spoken with many superintendents who’ve successfully managed in-person school since last September.

That success depends on class sizes, building ventilation and the landscape of local virus transmission — all factors he said would make it difficult to make a statewide judgment on returning to classrooms.

"There’s still a handful of school districts out," Evers said, but added that he’d like to get students back in school.

Is he correct that just a handful of districts are still learning largely online?

Let’s take a look.

Only state’s two largest school districts remain largely virtual, survey finds

State officials have chosen not to track district reopenings since the end of mandatory closures last June.

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However, a USA TODAY Network-Wisconsin survey of Wisconsin’s regional education agencies found that every district currently has at least some in-person instruction, and only the Madison Metropolitan School District and Milwaukee Public Schools remain mostly virtual.

In Madison, only the youngest students have returned to school buildings, while students in grades 3 and up are set to return in phases beginning in April. MPS offers an in-person option for some students with disabilities and could begin bringing others back starting April 12, 2021.

Wisconsin has 12 Cooperative Educational Service Agencies, known as CESAs, that help communicate between the state’s Department of Public Instruction and its 422 school districts. Seven CESA administrators surveyed said collectively, there were 150 districts in their jurisdiction where all students can attend school five days a week. Thirty-nine districts use a blended model, where students are in school part of the week and learn virtually on other days.

Other CESA administrators said they weren’t tracking how many districts were teaching students in-person or blended, but did say all districts were back to some in-person learning.

While some students have been back in the classroom since September, more moved to come back after winter break. Such was the case for the Appleton Area School District, for example, the sixth-largest in the state.

School districts generally have virtual options for students and families who did not feel safe returning to the school building, the survey found.

David Honish, agency administrator of CESA 8 in northeastern Wisconsin, told a reporter that "you have people almost making the assumption" that districts aren’t back face-to-face, even when that isn’t the case.

While many districts in his region began the school year virtually or in a hybrid model, most have returned to in-person learning, Honish said, with a few exceptions — including one high school that went virtual for two weeks after a COVID-19 outbreak.

Districts are required to notify their local health department when they learn of at least two confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the same building within two weeks.

Our ruling

Evers said there were still a handful of districts learning mostly virtually.

A USA TODAY Network-Wisconsin survey found only the state’s two largest school districts were keeping students mostly virtual, although even they have limited in-person options and are planning April returns.

We rate his claim True.

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More by Madeline Heim

Yes, there are just a few Wisconsin school districts still doing largely virtual learning

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