Some Madison School District elementary school parents are expressing frustration with the rollout of a last-minute online learning option for younger learners after teachers were shuffled, causing some classes to grow and some to shrink.
Molly Ruder, parent of a Lapham Elementary student, said she received an email from the district Friday evening, a week after classes started, that said her son’s class would change. His class, she said, went from having 13 students to having 24 students after a teacher was moved to accommodate students who opted for online-only learning.
Ruder said she’s worried the risk of contracting COVID-19 will increase for students whose classes grew, due to more crowded classrooms.
“The (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) said prioritize in-person learning and this absolutely does not prioritize in-person learning if the class size doubles and that limits the ability to do hands-on and small-group learning when you have one teacher to 24 students; it’s actually disenfranchising more students than anything,” she said ahead of a Madison School Board committee meeting Monday night.
The district reassigned 19 elementary school teachers to teach online only, said Carlettra Stanford, chief of Madison’s elementary schools. Principals of buildings first asked for volunteers to shift to online-only learning and then assigned the remaining teachers, she said.
Board members Cris Carusi and Nicki Vander Muelen also expressed concern with the teacher shift among elementary schools during Monday’s committee meeting.
“What got us to this point where in the second week of school we’re having to collapse classrooms and move kids around and increase class sizes?” Carusi said. “We’ve known for a while that there would be demand at the elementary level for virtual instruction because we have vulnerable children and because we knew there would not be a vaccine.”
Superintendent Carlton Jenkins said district administrators had discussed an online option for elementary students in the spring of the 2020-21 school year, but they ultimately felt going fully online would further hinder elementary students’ emotional and social development.
“No way could anyone have anticipated the recent development (of the delta variant),” he said, which caused the district to pivot from a fully in-person learning plan to offering some students an online-only option.
District spokesperson Tim LeMonds said all class sizes fall below the 30-student-per-classroom cap set by the Madison School Board.
“There are also students who are going virtual so that reduces the class size. You may get a few extra students in one class, a few less in another, depending on how the numbers break out in each school and each classroom,” he said.
The district had initially planned to support online learning for 150 students in grades 4K-5 in a last-minute push to accommodate families with significant health concerns. Current enrollment for elementary school online-only learning is 624 students.
TJ McCray, executive director of library and technical services, said his goal was to accommodate all families to the best of the district’s ability.
“We recognize and understand that we had a lot of students and families that were really thriving through a virtual option,” he said during Monday’s meeting. “So we wanted to ensure that we could prioritize our students and their families, those with medical needs and those who wanted the option.”
Muir Elementary had the largest number of students who opted for online-only learning, with 41 students, and Emerson Elementary had the fewest, or one.
Among those who are learning online, 26% are Asian, 24% are Black, 20% are Hispanic, 20% are white, 9% are multiracial and 1% are Native American.
Fifth-graders make up the largest share of those who decided to learn online (102 students), and the smallest share is 4K students (42 students). Low-income students make up 49% of those who opted to learn online, 22% are English-language learners, 15% are in special education classes and 12% are advanced learners.
Madison Promise Academy, the pilot online school for students in grades 6-12, had twice as many students apply as the district planned for. More than 450 students applied to be part of the academy’s first year; 234 were accepted and 218 were wait-listed.
“I was worried at one point because we said ‘If we build it, they will come.’ And then they didn’t come. And all of a sudden, they all came,” McCray said.
White students make up the largest share of those in Madison Promise Academy’s inaugural group, with 64 pupils. Another 59 are Hispanic, 44 are Black, 42 are Asian and 25 are multiracial or another group.
There are 47 high school sophomores, 44 seniors, 38 eighth-graders, 28 seventh-graders, 27 freshmen, 27 sixth-graders and 23 juniors.
Editor's note: This story was corrected. The Madison School Board sets the district's 30-student-per-classroom limit.