School Is About to Begin and Many Teachers and Parents Don't Know What to Do
Traci Ohlmann, seated near the back, teaches students at the Eau Claire Music School. Ohlmann, a 56-year-old music teacher in the Eau Claire school district, said she is considering retiring because of fears she could contract COVID-19. (Photo provided)

From considering early retirement and weighing the benefits of social interaction versus possibly contracting COVID-19, parents and educators speak out. 

From teaching students rhythms and beats to watching them joyously sing along to favorite tunes, Traci Ohlmann loves her job as a music teacher in the Eau Claire school district. 

But the veteran educator said she fears contracting COVID-19 so much that she is considering giving up her beloved interactions with students and instead retiring rather than returning to the classroom.

As the number of cases of the virus has risen rapidly in recent weeks in Wisconsin and across much of the rest of the country, Ohlmann, 56, is among educators and parents wondering if a safe return to in-person instruction in classrooms this fall is possible.

The teacher who splits her time between Northstar Middle School and Chippewa Valley Montessori Charter School said she would be exposed to about 350 children weekly. 

“I cannot even trust that if my district follows the guidelines that we will be safe,” she said. “I may need to retire because it’s not worth dying to keep teaching.”

As COVID-19 cases continue to surge in Wisconsin and across the country, and as school districts are announcing plans to reopen this fall, educators, parents, and others wonder how — or if — a return to classroom learning can be done safely.

On Thursday the state Department of Health Services reported 900 new cases of COVID-19, a continuation of record-high numbers during the past week. A total of 831 in Wisconsin have died from the virus and 39,627 have tested positive.

In addition, public health officials said, 59 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties are listed as having high activity levels of the virus, up from 48 counties the previous week. Nationally, there are more than 3.4 million cases of COVID-19 detected and the death toll has topped 138,000.  

As COVID-19 cases continue to climb, school districts in the state have begun to announce their plans for starting school again. Milwaukee Public Schools has announced it plans to begin the year with students taking classes online, while in Eau Claire district officials announced late Wednesday they plan a mix of virtual and in-person instruction. 

Other districts said they plan full face-to-face education for their students and teachers. However, those plans must be flexible, school officials said, depending on the disease track of COVID-19.

Many schools are planning hybrid education options in which students would split learning between classrooms and their homes to allow for greater social distancing in schools. But many parents and educators told UpNorthNews they’re concerned those measures and others, such as wearing face masks, won’t be enough to prevent significant spread of the virus. 

Like Ohlmann, Ann Lemmer views teaching students at John Muir Middle School in Wausau as her passion. But the 52-year-old eighth-grade literacy teacher said she is contemplating retiring early — despite the significant monetary loss she would take by doing so — because of the risk of getting sick with COVID-19. 

Lemmer said she worries not only for her own health and that of her immediate family but for her 80-year-old father, who has Parkinson’s disease, and her 74-year-old mother. Once she is exposed to the virus at school, visiting with them may be impossible, Lemmer said.

Ann Lemmer, a middle school literacy teacher in the Wausau school district, said may leave the job she loves because she fears contracting COVID-19 from students and spreading it to her elderly parents. (Photo provided)

In addition, she said, many of her teaching colleagues are middle-aged or older, and many have compromised immune systems or other health problems that put them at higher risk of significant health problems if they contract COVID-19.  

“It’s really terrifying,” she said of the prospect of returning to school as the virus remains active. “Even with precautions, I don’t see how we’re going to be able to keep this virus from spreading at school. I don’t want to retire. I love my job. But family comes first.”

Some parents said they’re so concerned about the transmission of COVID-19 in schools that they will keep their children at home for the fall semester. Those students will take part in coursework online, parents said, an option school districts are making available to those who wish to learn at home.

Eau Claire residents Ben White and his wife Heather plan to keep their 7th-grade son Bodhi home when school starts in the fall because of their worries about his contracting the virus and perhaps spreading it. 

“It isn’t ideal for our son,” White said. “Obviously we’d much rather have him in school, but we feel it’s the right thing to do.”

Others expressed concerns about the risk of COVID-19 transmission simply getting their children to school. Bus rides, especially in some rural areas where children are on buses next to each other for longer times, could pose a high risk for disease transmission, they said, as could lunch rooms. 

“Even if we spread students to classrooms, lunch will, inherently, necessitate students and teachers being without masks inside rooms with shared ventilation,” Chippewa Falls High School teacher Karen Drydyk said. 

‘Be in school’

While other parents and educators acknowledged worries about a return to in-person learning amid rising COVID-19 cases, they said a return to in-person instruction is necessary for students and their parents. 

Teachers, parents of school-age children, and district administrators from across Wisconsin told UpNorthNews that at-home learning during the spring semester after school buildings were closed in March was challenging at best and in many cases was largely a failed effort.

Some students lacked access to computers needed for virtual learning, while others live in parts of Wisconsin that lack broadband access, meaning they could not fully participate in online lessons. In addition, some students lack access to safe learning environments at home, and depression and anxiety are commonplace after students were isolated from their school friends for months.

“Of course I’m concerned about my child going back to school,” Madison resident JoEllen Klinger said of her 8-year-old son Gavin. “I’m worried that he could catch this. But he does much better in a school setting. Last spring didn’t work well for him at all.”

Other parents said they would like to have their children learn at home this fall, but doing so simply isn’t possible as both parents in many households are back at work since the state Supreme Court May 12 decision to overturn the state’s safer-at-home order that shut down schools and many businesses.

“The reality is so many of us have to work, so who is going to be there with our younger kids when they’re at home learning?” said LaTonya Rolston, the mother of two elementary-age children who attend Green Bay schools. 

While Derek Olson said he fears COVID-19 could spread rapidly with a return to in-person learning in classrooms, the risks posed by another semester or year of at-home instruction are great as well. The math teacher at Eau Claire Memorial High School and father of two young children acknowledged online learning during the spring semester was far from perfect. 

Attempting to come up with a hybrid learning schedule that includes a mix of in-person and at-home learning “will be a logistical nightmare,” he said. And even if the logistics can be worked out, “kids will still be in too close of contact,” he said, given the extremely contagious nature of the virus. 

Despite those challenges, Olson said, “somehow I feel like we all have to try to be in school.” Staff and students considered at higher risk of contracting the virus could perhaps be given special provisions, he said, and those students could learn online. 

“I can’t help but think that the show must go on,” he said. “For as dire as the consequences are if we go to school, so are the consequences for staying home.”

Josh Jackson and his wife Danielle Robinson teach in Milwaukee Public Schools. Like nearly all teachers, Jackson said he enjoys interacting with his students at Neeskara Elementary School. 

Despite challenges with online learning in the spring in the Milwaukee district, Jackson said beginning the upcoming school year with virtual learning makes sense given the high prevalence of COVID-19 there and overcrowded schools that would make social distancing difficult. 

Milwaukee Public Schools teacher Josh Jackson said he’s grateful he will begin the upcoming school year on paternity leave with his infant daughter, Ruby, as he fears contracting COVID-19 and spreading it to his daughter. (Photo provided)

Three months ago the couple became parents to their daughter, Ruby, and they worry that with in-person learning, they could contract the virus and expose their young daughter to it. Given uncertainty surrounding the start of this school year under the cloud of COVID-19, Jackson said he’s grateful he will begin it on paternity leave. 

“I want to go back to the classroom,” he said. “It’s best for education. But right now, when you look at what this virus is doing, I don’t know that we have the means to do it. The bottom line with this is there are no good answers.”