None too soon, Madison is welcoming its youngest students back to school buildings next month.
The solid plan is for Madison kindergartners to return March 9, followed by first- and second-graders March 16, and 4K students March 23. The district should continue to expand in-person learning for higher grades, assuming classes proceed safely, which they have in other districts.
School districts across rural Wisconsin, in the suburbs and even big cities such as New York and now Chicago have returned students without becoming hotspots of disease. The science strongly suggests COVID-19 can be kept at bay with precautions including masks, see-through barriers, social distancing and limiting student interaction. That’s especially true for elementary and middle school students, who don’t readily spread the disease.
Wisconsin is wisely prioritizing teachers for early vaccination, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends. Educators become eligible in Wisconsin for shots March 1, though limited supplies won’t allow every educator to immediately get shots.
“But I also want to be clear that there is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen and that safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated in order to reopen safely,” said Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
High school students may transmit COVID-19 more easily than middle and elementary students, Dr. Anthony Fauci said on “Meet the Press” last Sunday. The nation’s top infectious disease official added that community spread should be a factor in local school decisions.
But COVID-19 cases have fallen sharply in Wisconsin this year, and Dane County has lower rates of infection and death than its counterparts. Bars here have been closed for indoor service for months. Restaurants are limited to 25% capacity inside. The community has gone to great lengths to slow the spread so schools can reopen, and the state has markedly improved distribution of vaccines.
Madison is doing what’s best for its children and should strive to bring back more students as third quarter ends March 26. If positive trends continue, extracurricular activities and sports should return.
Remember: The vast majority of Madison students haven’t been in school buildings since mid-March of last year. All that time away — even with laudable efforts to engage students virtually — has stalled learning and social development for many young people. Disadvantaged children suffer the most. The American Academy of Pediatrics warns that online-only education can contribute to social isolation, abuse, depression and hunger.
Sending students back to school buildings will still be optional. Parents should be sure to respond to a forthcoming district survey about their intentions so the district has an accurate count.
Many Madison teachers are understandably concerned about their health, and their union has resisted reopening plans. The district should answer the union’s questions about reopening, which it outlined in a letter Friday. A careful review of new CDC guidelines makes sense, too.
But strong evidence shows the risk is low if precautions are taken, the CDC concluded again on Friday.
Coming back to school next month is the right decision for our community.