The Madison teachers union is signaling strong opposition to a return to in-person learning, even as local public health officials haven’t reported any school-linked COVID-19 hospitalizations or deaths and as some private schools that have been open for in-person instruction since the beginning of the school year report few major pandemic-related problems.
The Madison School District has also refused to release many details about the experience of a subset of students who have been receiving care and academic help in school buildings since September — potentially crucial information ahead of a decision on whether there will be a broader return to classrooms this month.
Madison schools Superintendent Carlton Jenkins has said he will make a decision by Jan. 8 on whether Madison will begin some form of in-person learning for at least some students in the third quarter, which begins Jan. 25. The School Board could make that decision, according to board President Gloria Reyes, and might seek to vote on the issue if the board disagrees with what Jenkins recommends.
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But district administrators are the experts, she said, and “we hired our superintendent to make these difficult decisions.”
Jon Bales, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators, said “the board ultimately has the authority” to decide whether to return to in-person learning, but it can choose to delegate that authority to a superintendent.
Madison Teachers Inc. executive director Ed Sadlowski lauded Jenkins for working with the union on reopening plans.
Jenkins, who started with the district in August, has afforded the union “a seat at the table as a full player,” Sadlowski said. Jenkins did not respond to a request for comment ahead of next week’s decision.
According to the results of a survey of MTI members posted to a member’s public Facebook page, about 94% of the approximately 1,000 teachers who responded opposed returning for in-person classes in the third quarter. Sadlowski declined to release the full survey but said the results the member posted were accurate.
Sadlowski said he has been underwhelmed by state and federal efforts to control the virus and said the district has been resistant to providing information about any union members affected by it.
Still, the union isn’t asking members to report if they test positive, he said, adding “we haven’t heard of anyone anecdotally coming down with COVID.”
In an email he outlined more than two dozen union expectations for reopening, including that staff be provided with personal protective equipment and hazard pay, an agreed-upon set of metrics for reopening, building improvements to limit the virus’ spread, safety committees at each school, and that any in-person work be “voluntary.”
“This isn’t over in the third quarter,” he said of the pandemic. “This isn’t over in the summer.”
An undisclosed number of Madison students have been in most of the district’s 51 schools since September through a child care and academic-help program the district launched in September called MSCR Cares, overseen by the district’s recreational arm, Madison School and Community Recreation.
In August, district officials said MSCR and private child care providers could provide care for as many as 2,000 elementary schoolers.
Sites operated by MSCR were each expected to hold up to 60 students divided into four groups of 15, district officials said then, and about 225 staff would be needed. About 150 of those staff could be re-assigned district employees such as food-service workers and security personnel, but not any teachers.
MSCR’s website shows it is operating at 17 sites; 13 other district sites are being operated by five other agencies that are providing their own staff.
The district has also continued to provide in-person instruction for some special education students for whom online learning isn’t effective. It has declined to say how many students were in the program, but Sadlowski said the most recent figure he had was about 335.
There have been periodic closures at some MSCR Cares sites as positive COVID-19 cases have cropped up, and on Dec. 22, the school district quietly launched an online dashboard, updated every Wednesday, showing the number of students and staff testing positive for the coronavirus and having to quarantine.
Since Sept. 8, according to the dashboard, there have been 120 positive cases and 723 people quarantined from 26 of the district’s 55 buildings.
“Our schools have strong mitigation strategies in place, and they have been extremely successful in acting quickly to prevent spread,” the website says.
Scott Shoemaker, a spokesman for the YMCA of Dane County, said none of the approximately 50 children across the two programs the Y operates at Kennedy and Olson elementaries has tested positive for the coronavirus.
One of eight staff members did but “quickly self-quarantined and was able to return to work following the standard quarantine period,” he said, and the programs have not had to shut down.
Separately, Public Health Madison and Dane County reports that since Sept. 1, it’s identified 22 clusters of coronavirus transmission and 121 cases linked to schools, including two clusters at schools in another county. None of the cases resulted in hospitalization or death, according to spokeswoman Sarah Mattes.
It’s hard to know whether those numbers are a sign that the Madison district has effectively managed the virus because district officials have declined to release information on the total number of students and district staff who have been in its buildings since September, how often it’s had to shut down programs because of outbreaks, and how sick people infected with the virus have become.
Mattes similarly said that because Public Health doesn’t have information on how many students and staff have been engaged in in-person learning in the county, it can’t say what percentage of them have been infected at schools.
In November, 16-year-old East High School student Isai Morocho became the youngest person in Wisconsin to die from COVID-19, but there’s no indication that he acquired it at a school.
Public Health in August issued an order barring schools in Dane County from holding in-person classes for all but grades K through 2, but the state Supreme Court blocked it from taking effect and many private and religious schools in the county have been open to in-person learning since the start of the school year.
On Dec. 14, citing research suggesting schools are not sources of community spread of the virus, Public Health issued new recommendations saying it was safe for schools to reopen with the necessary safeguards and under a phased approach that would send younger students back to the classroom first.
Research nationally has shown that minority students suffer disproportionately the longer schools are closed to in-person learning. The Madison district already had some of the largest racial achievement gaps in the country.
The Madison Catholic Diocese, which operates 46 schools in 10 counties in southwestern and south-central Wisconsin, said that as of Dec. 16, the use of masks, social distancing, schedule changes and other precautions have likely prevented any confirmed cases of school-related transmission of the virus, although the diocese didn’t provide the total number of cases among students and staff.
“Based on my discussions with principals, most of the transmission seems to be occurring in homes among the people living in the same dwelling,” said Michael Lancaster, the diocese superintendent of schools.
The diocese said there have been classes and schools where students had to move to online learning because of the number of students in quarantine, including during a surge in cases in November and the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas break.
At Lighthouse Christian School, which serves 245 students in grades 4K through 8, nine students and six staff members have tested positive for the virus, according to principal Tia Sierra.
The entire school quarantined for two weeks at the end of October because of the large number of staff who had contact with someone who tested positive, and six classes have had to quarantine at separate times, she said.
“Everyone who has had it in our community had it very mild and recovered quickly in spite of the fact that our school community is 80% minority — Latino and Black,” she said.
Public health data nationally show minority populations have been hit harder by the virus.
Charles Moore, the principal at High Point Christian School, said that since the vast majority of its nearly 300 students returned to in-person learning at its two sites in Madison and Mount Horeb, it’s had only one positive case, a student.
He said the student caught it during a trip out of state and that the student’s class was quarantined for 14 days, but no one else in the class tested positive.
Moore said the strict guidelines Public Health has issued for how to conduct in-person schooling have been effective at stopping infections at High Point, and contrasted its experience to the experience at another private religious school he works with in Sauk County that isn’t subject to the same guidelines and has seen more infections.
With the right precautions in place, “it is very possible to do it safely,” he said of in-person schooling.
Lighthouse and High Point are among the seven schools in Dane County that get taxpayer dollars through one of the state voucher programs. The five others did not respond to requests for comment.
Editor's note: This story has been corrected to say there are 13 district sites where private agencies are offering child care programs.
Should schools reopen? Our readers sound off
Readers have strong opinions about last Sunday's Wisconsin State Journal editorial, "Fauci sends a message to schools," which encouraged local school districts to develop and share plans for reopening schools for second semester. Here are some of the letters to the editor the State Journal has received in response in recent days.
I found last Sunday's State Journal editorial, "Fauci sends a message to schools," disingenuous and dangerous.
Schools should have opened in September.
The State Journal editorial board are a bunch of ghouls.
I take issue with last Sunday's State Journal editorial, "Fauci sends a message to schools," on children returning to schools.
Schools need to remain virtual. It does not add up that in-person school is OK.
Instead of making teachers the scapegoats of all the world's ills once again, maybe we should simply be honest: The federal government's egreg…
I am appalled at the State Journal editorial board’s twisting of Dr. Anthony Fauci’s statements on ABC’s “This Week” and its call to open Madi…
I strongly believe parents should have the option to be homeschooled, no matter what the conditions for their kids.
I read with great disappointment last Sunday's State Journal editorial, "Fauci sends a message to schools," suggesting schools in Dane County …
Last Sunday's State Journal editorial, "Fauci sends a message to schools," took Dr. Anthony Fauci's comments out of context.
I read with consternation last Sunday's State Journal editorial, "Fauci sends a message to schools."
I find it pretty remarkable that the editorial board was able to gloss over the facts and act as a puppet, echoing statements made by the Legi…
Last Sunday's State Journal editorial, "Fauci sends a message to schools," took Dr. Anthony Fauci’s comments wildly out of context.