Teachers in Wisconsin’s 5 Largest Districts Demand Online-Only Classes For Now

Teachers in Wisconsin’s 5 Largest Districts Demand Online-Only Classes For Now



By Julian Emerson

July 20, 2020

Unions in Green Bay, Racine, Kenosha want to join Milwaukee and Madison in going virtual during a continued surge in COVID-19 cases.

Teachers unions in Wisconsin’s five largest school districts are calling on Gov. Tony Evers and other top state leaders to mandate that schools begin the upcoming school year with an online-only education model, action prompted by fast-growing coronavirus cases they say would endanger the health of staff and students.

Union leaders representing school districts in Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Racine, and Kenosha expressed their concerns about a return to in-person instruction in a letter to Evers, state Department of Health Services Secretary-designee Andrea Palm, and Superintendent of Public Instruction Carolyn Stanford Taylor. The virus is “surging across Wisconsin,” a state with among the fewest protections against the virus, they wrote. 

“Our students need safe, equitable, well-resourced classrooms staffed with highly qualified educators, so they can learn,” the letter states. “The classroom is where every single educator wants to be this fall, but with no containment of Wisconsin COVID-19 cases, a virtual reopening for public schools is necessary.”

In May the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said a full reopening of schools using face-to-face instruction would place students and teachers at “highest risk,” and that in both K-12 and college settings, the more people interact, the higher the risk of spreading COVID-19. Online-only, or virtual learning, would present the safest education model, CDC guidelines state.

Evers has said in recent weeks he would not issue an order to shut down in-person learning prior to the fall semester, or if outbreaks in schools occur once school resumes. Instead, the governor said he will leave it to local health and district officials to work together to limit the spread of COVID-19 in schools.

The union’s call for a statewide virtual school mandate comes as coronavirus cases continue to surge across Wisconsin, and as teachers across Wisconsin and the U.S. are expressing concerns about their safety by returning to classrooms. One-day record increases in new cases have been reported in three of the past eight days, including the current record of 978 cases reported on Saturday. (On Monday 703 new cases were reported.)

More than 42,000 state residents have tested positive for the virus, and 846 have died, nearly half in Milwaukee County. 

Fifty-nine of the state’s 72 counties are considered to have “high” levels of COVID-19, with 11 rated as medium and only two (Rusk and Langlade counties) deemed low. The number of COVID-19-related hospitalizations continues to rise as well, public health officials said. 

Black and Latino communities have been particularly impacted by the virus, a fact referenced in the letter from the teachers unions. “As districts serving majority populations of students and families of color, we cannot ignore the disproportionate impact of illness and death that Covid-19 has had on Black and Brown communities,” the letter states.

President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are calling for a return to full-time, in-person instruction for all schools and have threatened to cut federal funding to schools that don’t comply. In addition, Tom Tiffany, Wisconsin’s newly elected Republican congressman in the 7th District, introduced legislation that would cut off federal funding to schools that don’t reopen by Sept. 8.

Ron Martin, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest teachers union, said his organization is hearing from many educators “who have huge concerns” that a return to in-face instruction, even on a part-time basis, will lead to COVID-19 outbreaks that will endanger teachers, other school staff, their families and others.

The Kaiser Family Foundation released a report indicating that one in every four educators is considered at high-risk of contracting COVID-19. 

Martin said he backs the idea of starting the school year teaching online, given the coronavirus surge. Doing so would allow educators to better develop the best instruction for students amid the pandemic, he said. 

But Martin said it is unlikely Evers or other state officials would issue a statewide order that districts begin the new school year in an online-only mode after the May 12 state Supreme Court decision overturning an extension of the safer-at-home order by Palm. 

“It’s not going to come from the governor’s office,” he said. “If they do come up with an executive order, you know it’s going to be challenged, and we have a Supreme Court that will not rule in favor of the governor.”

Instead, he said, teachers and unions can work toward that action locally, as already occurred in Madison, where the school board last week voted to begin the school year online one day after the teachers union there demanded that, following the same move by Milwaukee Public Schools.  

The Sun Prairie school district is scheduled to vote tonight on a virtual-only education model to begin the year after recent high numbers of COVID-19 cases prompted a change from a previously proposed plan of part in-person instruction, part online.

Similarly, a hybrid plan in the Eau Claire school district, where Martin has taught, has prompted criticism from some educators and community members who say dangers posed by the virus make a return to face-to-face learning unsafe, even on a part-time basis.

Delaying in-person instruction would allow school districts more time to come up with better online learning options, Martin said. However, district officials and educators across the state acknowledged that style of learning didn’t work well in many cases after schools were closed on March 17, especially in parts of Wisconsin that lack broadband access.


CATEGORIES: Coronavirus | Education


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