(Photo by Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
(Photo by Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

GOP lawmakers haven’t met in more than 170 days as educators struggle with costs, connectivity, and minimizing coronavirus exposure.

The health of students and teachers in Wisconsin schools is in danger as decisions about whether education occurs in person or online during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic often are being made based on politics and not science, the president of the state’s largest teachers union said Tuesday. 

During a news conference in which he called out state lawmakers, now recognized as the least productive of America’s full time state legislatures, Wisconsin Education Association Council President Ron Martin said decisions about how students should be educated are in too many cases being made without making avoidance of the contagious virus a top priority. 

Such decisions, he said, result in students and teachers engaging in face-to-face instruction in hazardous situations and endangering their health.

“Our call is that local districts place the safety of students and staff as a first priority” when deciding between online and classroom instruction, he said. 

In some cases, Martin said, decisions about how students learn are being made in order to keep schools open, regardless of rising coronavirus case numbers, in keeping with pressure applied by Republican legislators over the summer. Positive cases of the virus have grown substantially since the school year began a month ago, and Wisconsin currently is among states where the virus is growing fastest in the country

Separate teachers unions in Wisconsin’s largest school districts are advocating for schools to use online-only education models to protect against further infection and deaths. Unions representing educators in Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Kenosha, and Racine have urged Gov. Tony Evers and state Department of Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm to prohibit in-person learning for public and private schools and universities during the pandemic because it is unsafe. 

WEAC, as the statewide umbrella for most labor-represented educators, doesn’t support that concept, Martin said, and instead backs leaving that decision to local officials. But in some cases local school leaders aren’t heeding the evidence that the surging virus makes in-person learning unsafe, and “are placing students and staff in unsafe positions” because they are not basing their decision on science, but on politics.

Teachers have expressed concerns about their safety as they teach face-to-face. Many told UpNorthNews that while they prefer teaching in person, doing so as COVID-19 cases continue to climb is becoming increasingly dangerous. 

Some teachers retired earlier than they had planned before the start of this school year because they were worried about contracting the virus in classrooms. Wisconsin’s largest school districts, including Milwaukee, Madison, and Green Bay began the school year online rather than risk COVID-19 outbreaks. 

“Many of our members are worried about their health, and their families’ health,” Martin said. 

Susanna Scholsstein, a middle school art teacher in Arcadia, was quarantined for two weeks last month after exposure to the virus. That district went to online-only instruction nine days ago because of rising COVID-19 cases and is scheduled to resume in-person learning on Monday. 

Schlosstein said she hopes her district and others decide to resume face-to-face instruction because it makes sense based on cases of the virus, not for other reasons. While in-the-class learning is better for students, it is especially challenging for teachers not only because of the risk of contracting the virus but because of the multi-tasking it involves. 

“I feel like the Wizard of Oz, when you pull the curtain back,” she said. “I’m switching between the camera and projector and talking to my kids online and the students in my classroom. I’m making videos. It’s so much to try to do at once, and it gets to be really stressful.”

Martin said such stories among educators teaching amid the pandemic are commonplace. He worries about teachers’ mental states and said staffing in some districts is a concern as teachers exposed to the virus must quarantine and substitutes are in short supply. 

Martin said the inaction of the Republican-led Legislature, which has been out of session since mid-April, has left the state’s public schools without the support they need to deal with the pandemic. Legislators have not met since spring as Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos repeatedly have refused to meet to take up legislation

Among the matters Martin said he wants lawmakers to take up is funding to boost access to broadband. Much of the state lacks adequate broadband service, making online learning difficult or impossible. 

Other funding to address other COVID-19-related expenses, such as the need for additional staffing, also should be considered by the Legislature, Martin said. Without those dollars, schools will continue to struggle as the pandemic continues, he said. 

“(Lawmakers) need to come to Madison and make a decision about how they can support our schools,” Martin said.

Evers has called on the Legislature to meet to address various state issues, chief among them the needs of schools. On Monday the governor announced $47 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding, to assist state residents with child care, food, rental assistance and other necessities during the pandemic. Of that, $10 million will go toward the COVID-19 Out-of-School Support Grant Program that provides care to school-age children during the pandemic.