MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) – Most districts around the state have started the school year. Leigh Mills sat down one-on-one with State Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. Jill Underly prior to the start of the school year. This is her 11 minute interview.
Leigh Mills: It’s a new school year, a new role for you, being elected in the spring, what are your hopes and expectations for the upcoming school year?
Dr. Jill Underly: I have lots of hopes and expectations and as a parent myself who just came out of a school district as a superintendent, I really hope for fewer disruptions in learning this school year for kids. Our kids have shown us how resilient they can be, but I really would love for things to be as normal as possible for them and get back to whatever that is for them.
Mills: It’s an interesting role, because you were just wearing the local superintendent hat not too long ago. Were there any lessons learned last year that will guide you going into this year as you guide all of these school districts?
Dr. Underly: One of the things I learned last year is that planning helps. You’re never going to get everything covered, but trying to plan for the unexpected is helpful. So some of the things we did in our school district to mitigate the spread of COVID actually helped keep our schools open. And so my hopes is that other schools will follow suit. They’ll do whatever it takes to keep our kids safe and keep our staff safe so that we can have fewer disruptions.
Mills: The COVID-19 recommendations came out from DPI recently and it seems as though you’re committed to keeping kids in school five days a week, that of course is the big questions for many parents, myself included. What would you say to parents about your commitment to do that, and are there any scenarios in which you would see us going back to a virtual recommendation?
Dr. Underly: I think we’re in a totally different spot than we were though a year ago. A year ago we didn’t have a vaccine. A year ago we weren’t quite sure where things were going to go. A lot of schools started their school years virtual last school year. So I think moving forward, I think we could possibly go the virtual route if things were to get so bad again, like if we had a variant that was making so many kids sick, because ultimately we have to remember that there’s a population in our schools, the kids under 12, they cannot get the vaccine. And so what we’re seeing with this particular variant is those are the people who are getting sick. It’s our kids who are unvaccinated as well as adults who are unvaccinated. So I guess my hope is that when we put this guidance out, that it was rooted in science. It’s rooted in the immunologists and their best practice to make sure we can do whatever it is to keep our kids safe and to keep our schools open. We learned a lot of lessons from last year. We know that a lot of kids do not learn well virtually. A lot of kids struggled with a that. A lot of families struggled with having their kids learning virtually. We also have internet problems throughout the state where we don’t have broadband in a lot of places, and in some places we have it, it’s not affordable. So how do you serve those kids? We have food insecurity in a lot of our communities as well. And for many kids, school lunch and school breakfast may be the best meals that they’re receiving. So there’s a lot of factors that we have to take under consideration when we put this guidance out. We want our kids in school. That’s their future. It’s our future as a state of Wisconsin to make sure that they’re getting the best foundation, and schools that are open to face-to-face learning is the best way to do that.
Mills: I did a story on the concern about COVID slide heading into last summer, so a year ago. I have not seen new data to reference right now, but your mentioning a lot of kids learn better in person, and certainly every child is different, are you worried about what transpired over the last year and where kids are going to be heading into this year and the work that teachers will need to do make sure that everybody is up to speed?
Dr. Underly: Learning happened, whether it was at the pace we would have wanted to or not is up for debate. I haven’t seen the data yet from last spring’s testing either but.. I think what we know is that kids worked their butts off, and teachers worked their tails off to make sure that kids were getting the best education that they could get, whether it was virtual or in-person. Kids themselves are turning into advocates though, which I think is also something that is promising and it demonstrates the resiliency. If they were not learning well online, they were telling their teachers and they were telling their parents, and we were trying to make adjustments. And I think that’s really exciting to see kids advocate for themselves, but, yeah. It will be interesting to see when the results come through. I know learning happened but it’s maybe not at the pace we would have hoped.
Mills: Another impact of the pandemic, and I’m going to read this, because I don’t want to get it wrong. A report by the Wisconsin Policy Forum, did you see this? It showed what they called a historic drop in public school enrollment. They also saw a drop in private schools, and then saw an increase for homeschool and some virtual charter schools. Does that concern you as a trend, or do you think the data is just because of the pandemic? What do you think when you look at that kind of a report?
Dr. Underly: I think the data is just because of the pandemic, because I saw that as a superintendent last year. A lot of parents opted to keep their younger kids home. In Wisconsin, you don’t have to go to school until you’re 5, so a lot of parents, I feel, kept their kids back or held them back, we called it red-shirting back where I was at. I think ultimately though, it’s because there’s so much anxiety around the pandemic and COVID. In kids not able to get the vaccine, a lot of kids are cared for by maybe grandparents who are elderly, and last year again at this time we didn’t have the vaccine for anybody. So it will be interesting to see what the data shows this year. I was concerned initially with the increase in the virtual charter schools, but I know that a lot of districts are now offering that option in their own districts to accommodate parents as well. So it will be interesting to see if that trend continues, but I’m hopeful that it was just a one year thing.
Mills: So in general, what would you say is your biggest concern heading into this school year?
Dr. Underly: My biggest concern is going to be disruptions. I’m worried about illnesses among our staff and our bus drivers, because we know that we’ve had to close buildings this past year because we maybe didn’t have enough bus drivers to get the kids to school or enough teachers to teach. And so, if we can’t staff our schools, we can’t have them open. And so I’m worried about disruptions. I’m worried about the transition if we do have spikes where our kids have to go virtual again. And again with the internet and the broadband connectivity, and some uncertainty in lots of parts of Wisconsin, I worry about that disruption as well. It’s just overall very disruptive. School is supposed to be that constant in our kids’ lives. It’s supposed to be that place where they are safe. The place where everybody gets what they need to learn, and in a pandemic, those disruptions really take away from that experience for our kids.
Mills: In terms of the shortage you mentioned, if there was one before, and we’ve covered stories of shortages in so many different sectors, is it worse because of the pandemic or status quo, because it already existed?
Dr. Underly: I think it’s worse because of the pandemic. It certainly was in existence. We have fewer individuals going into teacher education programs becoming teachers, but I also know that a lot of newer teachers after.. I mean your first few years of teaching are already extremely stressful. And then also for older teachers, who may be close to retirement, they saw the pandemic as an opportunity to retire. Maybe they thought prior they could work a few more years because they still had it in them, but also during a pandemic with all the anxiety and uncertainty, again we didn’t have a vaccine a year ago, but I did see a spike in openings for teachers who were new to the profession but then also early retirements.
Mills: Okay, to wrap this up and put a bow on it, your best advice for parents heading into the school year is what?
Dr. Underly: My best advice to parents is to stay flexible. I know it’s difficult, I know with all the different disruptions, it’s tough. But I think we need to approach the situation with grace and give ourselves a break but also give our school staff a break. Our school boards and our teachers and our principals, they’re trying to keep our kids safe, and so they’re going to do whatever they can to keep our schools open, but to do that they have to keep our students and our staff safe. So give everybody grace. Give everybody the benefit of the doubt that they’re all working in the best interest of what’s best for your kids.
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