By Hayley Crandall
Milwaukee public school and colleges highlighted their continuous efforts to help COVID-19 impacted students during a virtual conference on Wednesday.
Milwaukee Public Schools, Milwaukee Area Technical College and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which make up the M3 (M-Cubed) collaboration, have been working to assist student with mental health, basic needs, the digital divide and financial struggles during these uncertain times.
All three schools managed to transition from in-person schooling to online fairly quickly in mid-March but handling factors beyond the classroom has been a challenge.
MPS recognizes that the top needs for its students are assuring mental, social and physical well-being, explained MPS Superintendent Keith Posley. The pandemic has brought a level of isolation for students as they no longer have that fundamental classroom or extracurricular activities to participate in.
“All of our students and staff miss this social interaction, the social aspect of being around each other,” Posley said. “We also understand the importance of social distancing and recognize that it’s a challenge.”
UWM Chancellor Mark Mone noted that mental health issues among students were increasing before the pandemic but are now exacerbated. To combat this, UWM has not only been providing individuals with counseling services but also socioeconomic support.
“If we don’t have mental and physical health in terms of that cocoon, that culture of safety and health, we can’t learn,” Mone said. “That’s just absolutely critical.”
MATC has expanded mental health services in the form of virtual resources, increasing suicide prevention and stress management programs along with counselors available for individuals, MATC President Vicki J. Martin said.
“There’s no set of established rules for how to move forward, how to take a break, how to slow down in the midst of a global pandemic,” Martin said. “Because of the health income and other disparities, our students are being adversely impacted.”
The schools are also working to aid in meeting the food and financial needs of students.
MATC has an available food pantry and received the Kohls Care grant which allows for better access to healthy food and nutritional information, explained Martin.
For other financial assistance, MATC has distributed more than $4 million in CARES Act assistance to students struggling with housing, transportation, food and other COVID-19 related emergency needs. Through other partners, it also assisted students in need of textbooks and coverage of exam costs, Martin said.
MPS works to provide meals through stop-and-go distribution sites. It has up to 50 sites throughout Milwaukee and provides meal services during the day, Posley explained. MPS has also been able to provide families with fresh fruits and vegetables.
“We have a number of families that may be in need and we are working through that with our families,” Posley said.
Loss of jobs hit college students hard at the beginning of the pandemic. UWM had the opportunity to distribute funds to almost 9,000 students in assistance.
“We had so many students who immediately lost their jobs, immediately loss on-campus or off-campus employment,” Mone said. “You can appreciate the types of jobs a majority of our students have.”
Mone even took it one step further by creating the Chancellor’s Student Success Fund which provides students even more assistance through donations.
What’s being called the “digital divide” has also been called into attention due to the fact that many institutions are operating online.
UWM acknowledged the need for technical hardware is bigger than what one university can address and has been working with the city and county to try to bring wider access to broadband, according to Mone.
Martin explained that MATC has distributed around 2,300 Chromebooks, nearly 1,000 of those in the fall semester alone. The technical college focused on Wi-Fi expansion through hotspots in the library and access in parking lots.
MPS has approached the situation by distributing Chromebooks to students since it pivoted to online classes, Posley said. MPS also added different hubs throughout the city from pick up devices to access hotspots.
Challenges may be present, and more needs may have to be met, but there is a sense of optimism as the community and institutions have rallied to support students.
“I will say that this is some real tough times, uncertain times, but we will get through it,” Posley said. “We will be better and greater for it.”