Addressing the mental health and financial needs of students and bridging the digital divide are among the biggest issues facing Milwaukee’s three largest public education institutions during COVID-19.
The leaders of UW-Milwaukee, Milwaukee Area Technical College and Milwaukee Public Schools discussed how their institutions have pivoted to meet the urgent needs of students through the pandemic during the debut of a new M3 virtual discussion series on Wednesday.
The institutions are partners in the M3 (pronounced “M-Cubed”) initiative, which seeks to close equity gaps and transform the future of young people through education.
“There truly is commonality among all of them. The mental health issue is a very real issue. It impacts the entire family,” said Jackie Herd-Barber, a philanthropist and M3 Advisory Board member who served as moderator for the debut of the virtual M3 Education Transformed discussion series.
She was joined on the webinar by UWM Chancellor Mark Mone, MATC President Vicki Martin and MPS Superintendent Keith Posley.
There were common themes in how UWM, MATC and were addressing concerns. A recording of the full webinar can be found on YouTube.
Mental health burden
The pandemic has placed a burden on the mental health of UWM students as well as faculty and staff, Mone said. The university regularly reminds the campus population of expanded virtual options for counseling and other resources focused on helping with physical and mental well-being.
Addressing mental health concerns of students had risen to become one of the top priorities for college and university leaders to address even before the coronavirus, Mone said. Those challenges have been exacerbated during the pandemic by factors like the health of loved ones, the inability for some to see family and close friends and worries about getting a job.
“Just something as basic as (wondering) ‘What’s my future going to be’ … in terms of employment,” Mone said. “As a result, mental health has come up to become the No. 1 issue.”
UWM has distributed about $750,000 to students through emergency grants or awards from the new Chancellor’s Student Success Fund. Chromebooks and Dell laptops have been made available for loan to students for coursework.
Each institution also has received vital financial assistance from the federal CARES Act. The money has been used for everything from helping to pay for technical infrastructure needed to support the expansion of online classes, to serving as a source for more emergency aid for students.
Here are some highlights from MATC and MPS:
All MPS classes are being held online, meaning students miss out on important in-person interactions with teachers in the classrooms, as well as social interactions with friends through sports, clubs and other extracurricular activities.
MPS put together a pandemic response team that was responsible for helping to ensure the health and safety of students and staff, as well as to provide support and facilitate safe operations.
MATC’s Student Resource Center has developed virtual means for students to reach them and to provide more mental health programming during the school year. The Student Resource Center has also partnered with the Hunger Task Force to provide access to food.
The school has distributed more than 1,300 Chromebooks to students without other access to technology to continue their education and stay on track for graduation. MATC also has provided 250 Wi-Fi hot spots through MATC libraries to loan to students.
The M3 collaboration perseveres through the pandemic. For instance, the initiative’s College Connections program enters its third year with 92 MPS high school seniors earning college credit by taking classes at MATC and UWM. Enrollment is up about 70% from last school year.
Since classes aren’t able to meet in person, M3 staff has provided care packages including a water bottle, snacks and personal notes of encouragement as a way to help inspire students.
“It’s so vitally important for us to continue to recognize the work that we are doing together,”
Mone said. “Recognizing that those students at MPS are our future – not only our future students at MATC and UWM, but really our future for the workforce, our future for our citizenry, for all the different things that we need in so many ways.
“It’s critically important that we continue to reinforce the practices that we are working on collaboratively for M-Cubed.”