Madison Teachers Inc. issued its first public response Friday to the Madison Metropolitan School District’s reopening plan.
The union sent a just-over-three-page letter to superintendent Carlton Jenkins and School Board members about the plan to bring kindergarten students back for in-person instruction beginning March 9. First- and second-graders are scheduled to return one week later and 4-year-old kindergarten on March 23. Families will have the option to remain entirely virtual.
“We acknowledge that we have a seat at the table to be involved in the decision-making process, but we are not here for ceremonial purposes,” the letter from the MTI Board of Directors states. “We intend to use our collective voice to protect our educators and our community’s most precious resource, the children of Madison.
“If these and many other questions are not answered satisfactorily and publicly by MMSD and the Board of Education, we cannot and will not encourage our members to support any district plan for re-entry.”
The questions range from requesting more detail on steps taken to improve building safety to how the district will support students, staff and families processing the past year of trauma amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“Show us your metrics and what building-by-building steps (renovation and remediation) have been taken, in order to assure all stakeholders that when the children, families, and staff of the district return to their classrooms, that they will be in a safe educational environment,” the letter states.
The district has outlined some of the safety measures it has taken on its reopening web page, including on air quality, water safety, signage and cleaning, but MTI states it needs more details given the “history of inadequate facilities” in MMSD.
School Board president Gloria Reyes wrote in an email that the board "will continue to work with MTI leadership and their members" and that board members "understand that this decision brings heightened anxiety for our MMSD family."
"It is during these times of crisis that require collaborative transparent leadership and that is what we continue to emphasize as a board," Reyes wrote. "We intend to answer all the questions sent to Dr. Jenkins and the Madison School Board while also sharing information at our school board meetings, where there is another opportunity to hear from our community."
Other questions include access to the vaccine, as well as the metrics the district is using to declare it safe to reopen and ensuring communication remains “transparent and equitable” during the reopening.
“We have already received reports of some building administrators sharing re-entry information with staff, while other staff have not heard anything from their administrators,” the letter states. “Some staff have been welcomed on school re-entry teams, while others have been denied because they’re not particularly close with the principal.”
Jenkins on Wednesday asked for support in prioritizing educators in the vaccine timeline, though most are not expected to be able to be eligible to receive vaccinations until at least March 1. He stressed that MTI and staff had been part of the conversations around reopening and said safety is the top priority.
“Everyone has been invited to the table,” he said. “We’re going to work together hand in hand all the way through.”
He said the social-emotional status of students was a driver in the decision, as well, as many pediatric experts have expressed concerns about students’ mental health in the nearly full year since they have been in school buildings.
“We’re trying to take into account, not only just returning safe for the instructional side, but there is a social-emotional piece that happens in schools that’s huge,” he said.
Studies have shown that schools are not the “super spreader” environments that many initially feared when the pandemic began, but often reflect spread in the broader community. Mitigation techniques like masks and distancing have been shown to help reduce spread. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control released new guidance Friday that suggested reopening schools can be done safely with mitigation techniques in place.
The district had been following a metric of a 14-day average of 78 new cases for four consecutive weeks before reopening for grades K-2. That number over the most recent two-week period was at 113.4, according to an update Thursday from Public Health Madison and Dane County director Janel Heinrich.
PHMDC is prevented by a court injunction from enforcing any thresholds for schools to open, which has allowed districts around Dane County to open for some in-person instruction. The department also removed threshold recommendations in its more recent orders.
MTI praised the collaboration between Jenkins and the union since he began in August.
“Since Dr. Jenkins’ return to Madison, we have appreciated the significant increase in discussions and good faith efforts to repair deeply-harmed relationships between the district’s administration and our Union,” the letter states. “We look forward to continuing this relationship respectfully and transparently.”
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