The Madison teachers union demanded Thursday the Madison School District commit to full online learning for at least the first quarter of the new school year as COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin and nationally climb.
“We are excited to work with our students and families,” Michael Jones, vice president of Madison Teachers Inc., said in a statement. “But we refuse to jeopardize the lives of our children or our families with a reopening plan that relies on magical thinking and unfunded mandates.”
The union is demanding Madison’s nearly 27,000 students not return to the classroom until Dane County reports zero new COVID-19 cases for 14 consecutive days, arguing the district’s tentative plans for how to reopen are light on details and a hasty return could harm communities of color who are already facing disproportionate rates of infection and death from the virus.
“The disparate rate of COVID-19 infection, severe illness, and death among people of color and working communities further spotlights the structural racism and economic inequality that exists,” the statement said. “Returning to school in-person puts our Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) children and families at greater risk without a promise of greater support.”
The Madison School District has yet to fully commit to a plan for the fall semester, telling parents it is still considering an all online model, a full-time in-person approach, or a hybrid of the two.
School Board President Gloria Reyes said the district will announce Friday the fall semester plan, saying “we’re on the same page” as MTI but declining to confirm whether the district has settled on fully online instruction.
“Eventually we want our kids to come back to school,” said Reyes, adding she personally supports starting the year online. “But at this moment, the way the numbers look — and we’re going to consider public health guidance around this — reopening schools right now is not looking good.”
Daily reported cases of COVID-19 in Dane County have shot up since late June, following a state and national trend of rising case counts. As of Thursday, there have been 3,298 confirmed cases and 33 deaths in the county.
The union’s call to hold off on reopening comes days after Milwaukee Public Schools announced it will start the year with a projected 30 to 45 days of online learning before transitioning students back to the classroom. Other large school systems, including Los Angeles and San Diego, said this week they’ll start school online.
The decisions are running contrary to a push from President Donald Trump, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and others, including state Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt, R-Fond du Lac, chairman of the Assembly Education Committee, who are advocating students be back behind desks in the fall.
Along with delaying the reopening of school, MTI said its demands of the district include:
Committing potential new money from an operating referendum on the Nov. 3 ballot
- to “funding safety of students and staff.”
- Funding in-person safety supplies and protocols for when students do return.
- Providing all students electronic devices and access to the internet.
- Involving staff and community members in a transparent decision-making process on reopening schools.
- Reyes said MTI’s demand of two straight weeks without a case in the county is not practical for determining when schools reopen.
“MTI, I understand they have the best interest of their teachers and staff, but they’re not public health experts,” she said.
Reyes said the decision to reopen school will be guided by health experts while also considering the role schools play outside of education.
“Our families are eager for their children to come back to school,” she said. “They have to go to work, they have child care issues, we have real issues and challenges that we have to balance.”
School Board member Nicki Vander Meulen also supports a virtual start to school, but said she can’t say the demand for zero cases over 14 days is practical because she’s not a public health expert.
“I can understand their concern, when people are putting their lives on the line,” she said of the union’s demands.
Advocating for transparency, Vander Meulen said the School Board should be voting — and not the administration deciding — on whether to start the 2020-21 school year completely online and approving a plan for a hybrid model.
Vander Meulen, who is an attorney, said board policies and state law give the seven-member elected body the right to make those decisions.
Ideas to reopen
The district recently gave the most comprehensive look at how it would reopen when the time comes.
In a presentation shared with families last week, the district outlined its current thinking about the fast-approaching school year. Regardless of how the year begins, the district says it’s committed to getting students to grade-level by the end of the year by providing consistent and actionable feedback on their progress and setting clear expectations on what needs to be completed.
The district said there also will be a focus on the social and emotional health of students, including screening students for mental health needs and regular check-ins using “a trauma- and resilience-informed lens.”
Whenever in-person classes resume, the district plans to limit nonessential visitors, group classes together for all subjects, install clear plastic barriers in welcome centers, and reduce the number of students on buses by spacing them apart and adding more routes, among other safety measures.
The hybrid model the district is considering would split students into two groups, with half attending school Monday and Tuesday, the other half on Thursday and Friday, with online learning the three days students are at home.
MTI said it would be “irresponsible and immoral” to continue to plan for reopening and criticized the district’s 25-page presentation for not answering all the questions on a risk assessment checklist the state says should be answered before schools reopen.
“We are ready to work with our children and families even though earlier virtual learning was … stressful for many of our students,” the statement said. “But we must balance that experience with the trauma of watching a classmate, an educator, or a family member suffer and perhaps die because we did not take preventative measures.”
Regardless of how the year begins, Reyes said the district needs to focus on the logistics of the hybrid model to ensure a smooth return when it is time to reopen.
She said the presentation was shared with families to give them a look into the district’s current thinking and stressed the plan is evolving.
“MTI really has to understand we’re working under new territory here,” Reyes said.
By the start of the school year in September, Madison students will have been out of the classroom for nearly six months after school buildings were ordered closed statewide in mid-March.
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