A report released by a state agency Wednesday, Dec. 30, outlined the impact of COVID-19 related public school closures across the state and barriers to learning during the end of the 2019-2020 school year — including lack of internet access in rural districts, layoffs among school staff and meal access for students and families in need.

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction said an overwhelming majority of school districts across the state opted for online-only learning at the end of the 2019-2020 school year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ninety-seven percent of public school districts closed their buildings once coronavirus cases reached Wisconsin in March and after Gov. Tony Evers issued a state-wide public health emergency requiring schools to close, during the second half of the second semester or fourth quarter.

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Of the 3% of school districts that opted against online-only learning at the end of the school year, the majority cited a lack of solid infrastructure to support digital learning in their rural district and a lack of teacher training on devices. Most of the districts that didn't offer online learning provided instruction through non-digital means.

All of the districts, online or not, reported encountering barriers in delivering effective instruction to students. According to DPI, those barriers included a shortage of reliable internet service, balancing at-home schooling commitments with parent employment, lack of experience with online learning platforms, caregiving and household responsibilities, an absence of child care solutions, and getting devices and other materials to students following the emergency health order issued March 13.

Of the districts that shifted to online-only learning at the end of the 2019-2020 school year, 85% provided training to staff on how to effectively conduct distance-learning digitally and 43% purchased software for staff to conduct online-learning.

Seventy-six percent of the districts that shifted to online-only learning purchased hot spots for students to access wireless internet and 53% purchased laptops and other devices such as tablets to provide one-to-one learning to students online.

Eighty-two percent of public districts across the state reported zero layoffs in connection with closures at the end of the 2019-2020 school year, but 6% reported layoffs of six to 20 employees, 6% reported layoffs of more than 20 employees, and 5% reported layoffs of one to five employees.

School districts across the state were able to provide more than 24 million meals to students through community partnerships and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's child nutrition programs.

"The period when school buildings were closed throughout our state brought unprecedented challenges and magnified many existing inequities, as families rushed to find immediate solutions, and educators re-imagined their entire educational delivery model in the span of just a few days," State Superintendent Carolyn Stanford Taylor said in a statement. "I am continuously amazed by the way our students, educators, and families have responded to daunting circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Our state must continue supporting them and providing the resources and services necessary to ensure their needs are being met."

In her 2021-2023 biennium budget request to the governor's office in November, Stanford Taylor outlined priority areas of need as districts across the state work to recover from an unprecedented year full of tribulation.

Priorities outlined in the budget request include: Increasing special education funding; restoring the state's commitment to two-thirds funding; increasing funding for mental health services in schools to respond to the growing needs of students; ensuring families who need support can access school nutrition programs; and investing strategically to help districts mitigate the effects of the pandemic.

Stanford Taylor decided in January not to seek election to the state superintendent seat in 2021. She was appointed by Evers in 2019, after he won the gubernatorial race in 2018, to finish out the remaining 2.5 years of his term as state superintendent.

The report was developed in accordance with 2019 Wisconsin Assembly Act 185, which was enacted April 15. The law called for the state agency to conduct a survey on the impact of wide-spread, COVID-19 related closures on the state's public school districts at the end of the 2019-20 school year. The report is required to be sent to the state legislature by Jan. 1, 2021.

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