The Racine Unified School District will reopen for in-person learning next Tuesday. (Photo by Jonathon Sadowski)
The Racine Unified School District will reopen for in-person learning next Tuesday. (Photo by Jonathon Sadowski)

Contrasting decisions from two of the state’s largest school districts embody a debate that has consumed the country for months.

The Racine Unified School District announced Monday morning that it will reopen its school buildings next Tuesday. The district’s announcement comes just three days after the Madison Metropolitan School District opted to begin its third quarter virtually.

The contrasting decisions from two of the state’s largest school districts embody a no-win debate that has consumed the country for months: whether it is better for students to attend school in-person, where learning is improved but the risk of coronavirus remains; or if it is better to protect the health of students, parents, and school staff by keeping learning online during the pandemic, despite the detrimental effects of online instruction on students’ education.

Stacy Tapp, spokeswoman for Racine Unified, said in an email that school buildings will open Jan. 19, and staff will be required to return for in-person work on Jan. 25 “unless they have extenuating circumstances” such as a child at home who does not have access to in-person schooling or childcare. Teachers with medical concerns will be considered for work-from-home on a case-by-case basis, Tapp said.

Special-education students who cannot do virtual learning will also return Jan. 25, Tapp said.

All parents will have the option to keep their children enrolled in virtual learning, Tapp said.

Racine Unified’s move to reopen comes only after the Racine Health Department on Monday morning announced it would not extend its school-building closure that has been in effect since November and expires Friday. School buildings will be allowed to reopen with an approved safety plan, according to Racine Health Director Dottie-Kay Bowersox.

Bowersox said she “strongly encourages” schools to offer a work-from-home option for their staff, but she told UpNorthNews she does not have the power to require it.

“Under the public health authority that I have, I can close the building but I can’t mandate the type of teaching or the mode of teaching that is provided through each individual school or school district,” Bowersox said.

Researchers have consistently found that schools are a low-risk environment for COVID-19 spread, provided community spread is low and proper safety measures are in place. A study published last month by an Icelandic genome study company found that children spread the virus half as much as adults, though the adults in the building pose an equal infection risk to children and fellow adults. 

Despite the general findings, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not give parents clear guidance and instead places much of the responsibility on individuals to decide whether they want to send their children for in-person learning. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, in November told ABC News to “close the bars and keep the schools open.” He said schools should only be reopened as long as the pandemic is otherwise under control in a community. 

In a statement, Bowersox said she “will closely monitor COVID-19 cases in schools, may choose to report out publicly the caseloads in buildings, and take additional preventative enforcement measures, as needed, up to and including closure of schools to prevent further community spread.”

The allowance of in-person learning accompanied an easing-up of some of Racine’s other COVID-19 safeguards. Bowersox said, because of declining hospitalizations and new coronavirus cases seen across the state, restaurants, bars, and indoor recreational facilities will be able to operate at 50% capacity—up from 25%—while retail establishments will no longer have any capacity limit.

As of Monday, there were 7,414 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 93 deaths within the Racine Health Department’s jurisdiction, which covers about 80,000 of Racine County’s 200,000 residents. The department reported an average of 32 new daily cases in the first week of January.

Bowersox said Monday that her decision had nothing to do with the ongoing lawsuits at the state Supreme Court that challenge local health departments’ authority to control outbreaks. The lawsuits target Bowersox’s school-closure order in addition to one issued in Dane County that prohibited in-person learning for grades 3-12.

But Madison students will keep attending school virtually until further notice.

For the current school year, the Madison Metropolitan School District has had 121 confirmed COVID-19 cases among students and staff and 723 people in quarantine. While most students and staff are attending school virtually, the confirmed cases have occurred among special-education students and teachers, administrators, and support staff, according to the district.

An otherwise healthy 16-year-old Madison East High School student died of COVID-19 in November. Madison Superintendent Carlton Jenkins cited the death Friday in a news conference explaining the district’s decision.

“We are fully, as a district, prepared to move toward reopening of schools if it’s safe,” Jenkins said.

Dane County, population 550,000, is currently recording an average of about 225 new COVID-19 cases per day, according to local health data. There have been 35,531 total confirmed cases and 211 deaths.

Most Wisconsin schools are now reopened for in-person classes.