As Shanita Brown watched her 7- and 12-year-olds walk into Metcalfe School together Monday, the first day of school for many at Milwaukee Public Schools, she wondered how long it would last.
“I’m worried about COVID and also monkeypox, so I’m just wondering how long school is actually going to be here without interruptions,” she said.
More than 20,000 MPS students were expected to start school Monday, with the rest starting Sept. 6. Staffing was immediately an issue, from bus cancellations to over 270 unfilled teacher positions, while parents also shared familiar concerns about COVID-19 and new worries about monkeypox.
Masks were required, as the county’s COVID level is considered high. The requirement will be reevaluated each Thursday and will be dropped if the COVID level falls, based on the district's policy.
Going into the fourth school year of the COVID pandemic, Brown said her kids have seen teachers leave and the school struggle with a shortage of staff. Her hope for the year at Metcalfe: that her kids will get more help working on reading.
Nearby at Milwaukee High School of the Arts, Mayor Cavalier Johnson, Superintendent Keith Posley and a parade of other politicians greeted students with a red carpet, as they do at a select school each opening day.
They didn’t mention COVID, monkeypox or staffing issues in a news conference, focusing instead on accomplishments at the high school where enrollment has been growing and renovations are coming.
“We’re excited to update our wonderful dance studio, the lighting and many other opportunities,” Posley said. “The positive energy here is contagious.”
While more students have enrolled at MHSA, enrollment has been falling districtwide, dropping under 70,000 students last year from more than 75,000 before the pandemic. The district's budget projected 67,500 students for this school year.
Posley did not share enrollment numbers Monday but said it was under 70,000. He said he wasn’t seeing a “big drop” from last year and the numbers seemed to be stabilizing.
“I feel really good about enrollment; our enrollment numbers are looking strong,” Posley said.
MPS seeks hundreds of teachers
MPS has 4,158 teachers and about 272 unfilled teacher positions, district officials told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Monday. That's about 6% of teaching positions vacant.
The vacancy rates are worse for the special positions added by a 2020 referendum, in which voters approved boosting the district's budget to fund certain positions. The district reported about 20 out of 29 referendum-funded teaching positions filled for art, 18 out of 40 for music, 19 out of 33 for physical education, and 36 out of 39 for libraries.
Amy Mizialko, president of the union for MPS staff, said the vacancies were not a result of a "teacher shortage," but a result of poor conditions that are driving teachers away, including micromanaging and low pay.
"I think practically everyone at this point knows a teacher who cut their time teaching short," she said. "There's a teacher recruitment and retention problem. We need intervention from the federal government. We need a state Legislature that is going to prioritize students in public schools."
Recent national surveys have found teachers are feeling more burnt out and unhappy with their compensation than in prior years.
A survey by the nonprofit EdWeek Research Center found the typical teacher worked about 54 hours per week, with Black teachers and teachers in majority-Black schools working more. About 44% of those surveyed said they were likely to leave the profession in the next two years, with higher rates among women and Black teachers.
School Board President Bob Peterson, at the Monday news conference, said more funding is urgently needed and called upon state lawmakers to invest the state's multi-billion dollar surplus into schools.
"Given that the state has a $5 billion-plus surplus this year, it’s unconscionable that the state Legislature refuses to do what’s right for children," Peterson said.
Is monkeypox a threat?
Asked about monkeypox Monday, Posley said he couldn't share exactly what protocols were in place but said the district had been working with the Milwaukee Health Department. The department didn't immediately reply to a request for information.
Experts have not identified K-12 schools as a major concern for the spread of monkeypox, which seems to spread most commonly from prolonged, direct contact with skin lesions — most often during sexual activity, according to the World Health Organization.
Monkeypox can, more rarely, spread from someone's skin to an object, and onto someone else from there, experts say. It does not linger in the air like COVID.
Mary Beth Graham, associate chief of infectious diseases at the Medical College of Wisconsin, said it would be highly unlikely for students to pick it up at school, as they likely wouldn't have the level of intimate contact that could lead to transmission.
"It has to be that skin-to-skin contact, very close, with somebody who has developed lesions," she said.
Monkeypox would mainly be a concern for students who are sexually active. Vaccines are available in Wisconsin for people who have been exposed; and for trans people and queer men, including minors, who have had multiple sexual partners in the last 14 days. Free confidential support in finding the vaccine is available by calling 211.
COVID approaches shift
While masks are still required at MPS for now, other COVID policies are shifting. Posley said he doesn't plan to close schools due to COVID unless there are staffing issues from teachers being out sick.
Vaccinated students and staff do not need to quarantine after exposure to COVID, as long as they don't develop symptoms, under a new MPS policy. The policy does require unvaccinated individuals to quarantine for five days after exposure. The CDC recently rescinded that recommendation. MPS has not responded to questions about whether it will update its policy to reflect the latest CDC guidance.
Staff members are still required to be vaccinated, but Posley said the district is not requiring booster shots.
As of Monday, MPS told the Journal Sentinel that 9,066 staff members have provided proof of vaccination, while 36 were granted medical exemptions, 771 were granted religious exemptions and 49 were on a leave of absence because they hadn't complied.
District officials said they do not track the percentage of students who have been vaccinated.
Most children in the city have not been vaccinated. As of July 29 for the city of Milwaukee, vaccination rates were about 21% for ages 5-11, 48% for ages 12-15 and 47% for ages 16-19, according to data from the Health Department.
Posley said MPS is not planning any vaccine incentives or awards this school year.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: MPS resumes with COVID policy, monkeypox worries, teacher vacancies