Dear Highland Families, Staff, and Community,

Where do we begin? We’re going on a year of living life upside-down since the COVID-19 pandemic hit our realities. We’ve experienced one of the greatest social justice movements that swept the nation, for some of us as eyewitnesses and for many more as direct participants and leaders in this work. We started the 2021 year with political and civil unrest unlike anything we’ve witnessed in our lifetime. Yet, here we stand, like a hardy early-May Wisconsin dandelion, determinedly deep rooted between the concrete cracks, dusted but not daunted by unusual Spring snow, holding onto the promise of warmer days ahead.

Each of us has been stretched in ways unimaginable and called to action for a greater good beyond ourselves. We’ve been asked to adjust our schedules, our lives, our work, our behavior, our views, our relationships…in many cases we’ve been required to adjust our spending, our habits, our hopes, and our dreams. All of us in some shape or form have been asked to make very personal sacrifices with our greater community in mind.  Many, if not all of us within our Highland community have selflessly responded to this call to action with compassion, love, and care, with the kind of deep commitment to community that we know exists in each and every one of you. 

How do we know this so solidly? Your decision, alone, to be a part of our Highland community demonstrates that you value social justice, that you understand how personal decisions impact our greater community, that you believe in intentional action to confront and counter racism, white supremacy, and discriminatory practices that have hurt and continue to hurt our Black, Indigenous and People of Color communities. You trust that Highland Community School teachers, staff, families, and community partners share in these experiences and values and are deeply committed to changing the world by nurturing children and their families to be informed, compassionate, lifelong learners who are a force for change in education, community, and society.

We begin with this because the HCS Board of Directors’ (Board) decision(s) regarding reopening our school building during the global pandemic, cannot be separated from this understanding. Yes, we are faced with a global pandemic and there are very specific health and environmental measures to consider and track in terms of safety and school preparedness. However, there are many more measures, such as the psychological safety and well-being of our teachers or the very real fear of contracting COVID, in particular for many of our students of color and others who live with multi-generational and vulnerable populations where the effects of the pandemic have been horrendously disproportionate, resulting in higher positivity rates and deaths in these communities.

HCS Current Reopening Criteria

In August, our school leadership created the School Reopening Plan, aligning with the MPS Reopening school criteria. Every month the Board has reviewed the criteria and determined it was not yet safe for our community to return to school.  As of today, the criteria still has not been met. The HCS criteria states: 

  1. Reports show that the City of Milwaukee has at least two weeks of declining infection rates to 5%, 
  2. The majority of HCS families are comfortable with in-person learning, and 
  3. MPS remains closed. 

Considered Factors

(this summary is not inclusive of all factors considered)

We know how hard and challenging this has been for many HCS Families, balancing full-time work with full-time schooling from home. We know this first-hand because all of us on the Board are HCS parents/guardians, too.

Additionally, we are aware of the challenges virtual learning has for widening the racial equity gap in terms of academic achievement—the challenges many of our families face with access to technology and resources to ensure their children are learning; the fear that many of us have that even our children who do have the resources and access are not reaching their full potential through the virtual learning platform; the capacity of staff and limited school resources, and the very real academic, emotional and mental health challenges that children and families are struggling through. 

In light of the many schools and school districts that are already open or preparing to open, including the potential for MPS to offer a hybrid model as early as April 12, as well as the roll out of COVID vaccinations, our Board continues to plan for the possibility of offering a hybrid model this school year. 

If the Board were to solely base this decision on the required HCS Criteria stated above, we would decide to remain virtual due to criteria #1 and #2 of the three not being met. However, we have learned a lot within this past year and acknowledge new information and developments must be considered, as evidenced by MPS’s own consideration to open buildings in April. 

Information and guidance we gather from other schools and districts, especially other Montessori schools, provides us additional insight to learn what a hybrid model requires in the event we were to offer hybrid programming and when. Much of this, of course, hinges on the rate of vaccinations in our community and with our staff, as this directly impacts levels of community comfort with in-person schooling. In addition, our school leadership and teachers have identified several challenges that need to be sorted out in order to offer a hybrid model, e.g., school safety measures, teacher capacity to prep classrooms, teacher capacity to teach Montessori with fidelity given safety protocols and/or to simultaneously teach in-person and virtually, contact tracing, risk to vulnerable families, schedules for staff w/children, and the impact to families who do not have flexibility/transportation to participate in hybrid model even if they want to.

Current Position

In our most recent board meeting on February 8, 2021, we discussed many of these things at length. We welcomed nearly 50 staff and HCS families, who also shared brief testimonies and perspectives on going hybrid or remaining virtual. After deliberation and with much thought and care, our Board chose to remain virtual, for now, based on our consistent application of Highland’s reopening criteria. However, given that the MPS Board of School Directors is meeting March 15 to decide on whether or not they will offer a hybrid model beginning April 12, we too will revisit our hybrid reopening possibilities next month, as we have done every month since the pandemic began. 

Pending Next Month’s Board Meeting

In preparation of next month’s meeting, we will track the rate of vaccination as well as inquire with HCS families about their interest in participating in a hybrid model. We will also form a special committee comprised of staff and board members, many of which are HCS parents/guardians, to focus on addressing all of the remaining challenges identified with going hybrid. While much work has already been done, there are a number of issues that continue to require resolution. We will hold our next board meeting on March 8, 6-8pm to review the hybrid model updates, and we will hold a special board meeting on March 17, 6-8pm after the MPS March 15th meeting. As a non-instrumentality charter school within MPS, we are interested to know what our parent district will decide. We plan to make a decision on our path forward—to go hybrid or remain virtual—at the special board meeting on March 17.

We know you want answers. We value each of your perspectives and concerns. We know we will not be able to satisfy the wishes of every person in our community. Our hope is to make the best decision for most of us: students, families, staff, and guardians. We’re in this together and have to think beyond our own personal preferences to determine, once again, what’s best for our community as a whole.

Thank you for your trust, patience, understanding and commitment as we work through this together.

In Service,

Highland Community School Board of Directors