A distorted black and white collage of typical back to school supplies and symbols, overlaid with ominous signs of the times, including face masks and a bio-hazard symbol

Dangerous School Reopening Plans Anger Teachers, Hurt Students in Wisconsin

By David Boffa, Ally Bates, Peter Jurich, and Ben Ratliffe

The COVID-19 pandemic is here for the long term. Thanks to disastrous leadership at nearly all levels of government, a widespread culture of science denialism, and a toxic for-profit healthcare system the United States has in large part failed to make any significant progress in stopping or even slowing the spread of COVID-19. Most of us who’d hoped for the summer to bring relief—back when we were young and innocent in the pandemic’s early days this past spring—have now accepted that not only was this not the case, but that quite the opposite has happened. While new cases have been falling for several weeks thanks to the restrictions adopted by several states the numbers are still staggering; as of this writing, Wisconsin has had over 70,000 confirmed cases, over 7,000 active cases, and is adding hundreds of new cases a day. 

Despite the reality of this situation—which is significantly worse than the spring, when schools were closed statewide—we are weeks away from many schools in the state choosing to reopen. Currently, Wisconsin has a patchwork of reopening plans for schools during the 2020-21 academic year. The Education Forward plan developed by the Wisconsin Department of Public Education notes that under state law individual school districts “determine the operations of their buildings and the learning environment.” 

Shortly after 5 pm on Friday, August 22, Public Health Madison & Dane County announced that no school in Dane County would be permitted to hold in-person schooling for students in grades 3-12 at the start of this school year due to the high daily average number of COVID-19 cases. Schools can hold in-person learning for students in kindergarten through 2nd grade if they choose to.

Some districts, like the Madison Metropolitan School District, have opted for a fully online reopening (Madison schools will be entirely online at least until October 31). Others—like the School District of Baraboo—planned to have fully in-person instruction, five days a week, for all students (although families may choose whether to do in-person, hybrid, or all virtual learning).  Some districts are still waiting to make decisions and many have plans to reevaluate as the school year begins. In all cases it seems that parents have the option of choosing a fully online learning experience. 

Districts that have decided to reopen in full or in part—e.g., some districts will have students in school only part of the week—appear confident that they are taking the necessary steps to ensure a safe reopening (or as safe as possible). This includes, but is not limited to, steps like social distancing (6’ apart), mask usage, sanitization stations and equipment, protocols around bussing, and teaching and reinforcing good hygiene practices. Districts’ confidence in these measures—more accurately, their overconfidence—doesn’t seem to acknowledge two key points: 1) the difficulty of enforcing these policies on the ground; and 2) the need for robust testing, tracing, and quarantine protocols. Without the latter, any success on the preventative measures will be wasted. 

Back to School in Sauk Prairie schools

In the Sauk Prairie school district, plans seem to change with each new weekly Sauk Prairie School Board meeting. The board’s original plan was to halve the number of classes each day but double the time in each class, which would cut down on passing time in the halls but still bring the entire population of students back to school every day. According to one teacher (who spoke on condition of anonymity) the schools already have had kids returning for summer sports and testing positive for COVID. As of this writing, Sauk Prairie School District appears to have settled on a hybrid model in which students will be split into two groups that will alternate in-person school attendance. 

One teacher from the district spoke to Red Madison and asked not to be named for fear of retaliation. She says a “teacher task force” was set up to give teachers some input in planning, but the board gave it no actual power. The National Education Association, which represents educators at the district, has up until recently only made some tepid requests to “please think about the teachers.” Their union finally initiated a letter-writing campaign after teachers demanded elected leaders take a firmer approach.

When asked what she and her colleagues need going into the fall, she talked about how nearly impossible it is to plan the semester. Equitable internet access is a major problem; furthermore, because the school doesn’t have open internet access students must use the school’s Chromebooks, which have limited capabilities. As to the other options, she said, “these hybrid plans are preposterous and masks and plexiglass in classrooms is just theater when you’re talking about spending every day with 120 students in a room with poor ventilation.”

“Be angry at being forced to go back to work without ensured safety and good compensation. Be angry that 23% of the districts’ students qualify for free and reduced lunch. Be angry the government isn’t providing any child care relief. This has nothing to do with ‘lazy teachers who won’t make sacrifices for their kids’ and everything to do with inequality and the government not stepping up.”

Beyond the practical needs of teaching, she says a major part of the problem lies in who is being blamed for the chaos—namely, teachers. Many parents, influential locals, and even other teachers are pointing fingers at the teachers who are most outspoken against reopening in-person classes in the fall. She says teachers are very much aware of the struggles of parents as many teachers are parents themselves. 

Instead of being angry at teachers, this educator says, “Be angry at being forced to go back to work without ensured safety and good compensation. Be angry that 23% of the districts’ students qualify for free and reduced lunch. Be angry the government isn’t providing any child care relief. This has nothing to do with ‘lazy teachers who won’t make sacrifices for their kids’ and everything to do with inequality and the government not stepping up.”

No Easy Options

Regardless of what plans school districts go with, each includes a variety of socioeconomic hurdles. As with many things in this pandemic, the burden of these hurdles is primarily shouldered by individuals and families, not larger entities with the systemic capacity to handle them.

School districts that do choose to prioritize the health and safety of their students and staff by starting the school year with remote learning must also be prepared to do more to support  students and their families as they adopt new routines and a dramatically different learning model. The class divide in our education system is only getting wider in the pandemic. The move to remote learning creates a number of challenges specific to lower-income families. 

For one thing, students in lower-income families are less likely to have access to all the technology to successfully participate in online learning. Some school districts are able to provide laptops or other devices to students for online learning, but that is still very contingent on their household having internet access. A 2015 Pew Research Center analysis of census data found that 35% of lower-income households with school-age children did not have a broadband internet connection at home. Sometimes internet access is also limited by where the student lives—rural populations are significantly less likely to have the infrastructure for internet access, even if they could afford it, and those that do have significantly slower internet speeds.

Beyond the technological limitations of online learning for lower-income families, there is also the issue of childcare and adult support for students. Lower-income and minority parents are more likely to be unable to work from home. Young children require supervision—who is able to do that in families where the adults are unable to work from home? Sure, some families have community support systems in place and relatives that are able to look after their children, but this is an undue burden on families to solve on the micro-level, when a macro solution should be implemented

Children also will need help with their remote learning, ranging from assistance in operating their online learning portals to understanding concepts. That is challenging for parents regardless of their economic situation. Parents working outside the home may not be able to provide that support during typical school hours, and parents working from home are also trying to juggle their own work and possibly caring for other children. Either way, this is a challenge for families; caring for and educating a child is a full-time job that many parents do not have the capacity to do without financial support.  

Schools that are re-opening in-person will probably also face the same technological and childcare issues as schools with remote learning starts. A COVID-19 outbreak is almost inevitable for school districts planning on in-person learning, but a mid-term pivot to online learning will probably not be executed as well as those that planned to open online, possibly exacerbating the above-stated issues as families will have less time to prepare.

Ultimately, even finding solutions for all of these issues (and many more) on a school district level isn’t even as wide of a scope as it should be. Public education is notoriously underfunded, so school districts are probably doing the best they can with the resources they have. If anything, this highlights the overall need for our state and nation to invest more in education so schools are able to make the safest choice for their students and provide those students the necessary support in and out of the classroom.

Districts backing down

As this hodgepodge of reopening plans that feel more like experiments are announced throughout Wisconsin, there are some stories of teachers successfully protesting the plans put in place by district leaders. A suburb of Madison provides one such example. This district originally opted for a model in which students may learn virtually from home, but teachers must return physically to the building everyday—a decision seen by many to have placed unnecessary health risks on teachers.

Back when this decision was made, the district sent teachers a correspondence with the following rationale: “We believe that in order for our educators to provide the best possible learning experiences for students, they need access to their classrooms, their materials and supplies, and their colleagues.”

“To me, this implies that it is acceptable to risk our health for convenience,” says a Dane County middle school teacher who wishes to remain anonymous. “It just makes no logical sense in terms of health and safety to Zoom with my colleague one room over instead of the next neighborhood over.”

When teachers from multiple districts in Dane County voiced their concerns over this and similar decisions, those districts sent more memos to staff. One widely circulated statement read:

“We know some staff members may be hesitant or reluctant to physically return to school. We respect this sentiment. However, as an organization, we must staff our schools to meet the needs of our students. Unless a staff member qualifies under a specific law (or policy) for a leave or accommodation, staff must be prepared to physically return to work once our school buildings reopen. A general feeling of uneasiness or a concern that by physically returning to work might increase exposure to family members is generally not going to be a sufficient reason to remain away from work according to federal leave requirements.”

In reaction to this statement, the anonymous teacher said, “To reduce concerns about contracting a virus in a pandemic as ‘a general feeling of uneasiness’ was astounding—let alone the tone about concerns of putting families at risk.”

Almost immediately after this information was shared, teachers challenged this unnecessary risk and their district decided that it would no no longer be required, but  “strongly recommended,” to teach virtually from the school building instead. “I am so grateful for teachers who spoke out,” the teacher says. “I believe that initial decision was based on public perception of a few outspoken, negative community members and the surveillance of teachers.”

Under the political microscope… again

Decisions that dictate teachers’ professional lives and general health are often made erroneously without union input—as is common in manys districts in Dane County and beyond. In fact, the teachers’ union heads in this district were surprised when the decision to teach from the school had been announced since they were still in the middle of researching safe options for learning.

“I feel pissed by how much I and others must advocate literally for our lives,” the teacher said. “Many of us entered the profession in part because we love the beautiful cacophony and chaos of students filling the rooms of our school—the vibrancy, the dynamism. But you know what else we love? Our lives—and being able to offer ourselves fully to this beautiful, difficult work we do. We value our lives! Our districts should, too!”

As the school year looms on the horizon, the decision within each school district of whether to physically open buildings has become a political argument. Teachers in Wisconsin are unfortunately used to their jobs being at the center of political scrutiny, but framing the debate through the lens of a global pandemic is new.

“Many of us entered the profession in part because we love the beautiful cacophony and chaos of students filling the rooms of our school—the vibrancy, the dynamism. But you know what else we love? Our lives—and being able to offer ourselves fully to this beautiful, difficult work we do. We value our lives! Our districts should, too!”

The debate surrounding the reopening of schools unfortunately falls in line with the debate of whether teachers should be willing to die for their students—a conversation that teachers are really tired of having. But with current focus on the pandemic, the teacher says: “We are trained to protect our students, with full knowledge of potentially sacrificing our own lives, in the extraordinary, unexpected circumstance of an active shooter. But now, we are expected to offer up our lives in a pandemic? Why is there not more outrage about that?

“I don’t know how teachers and schools became the center of the ‘return to normal’ narrative, but until there is a vaccine and widespread access to it, there will not be any part of this past sense of ‘normal’.”

She adds that this “return to normal” narrative is pushed harder through the idea that American students will “fall behind” in learning but notes that that is a “false, dangerous construct.”

“We have the possibility in education to reimagine, if we want to, what meaningful, equitable learning could look like. With that, I know in my district and in others, teachers were explicitly—and in my opinion, rightly—told last school year to privilege connection over content.

“Deep care for our students and teacher safety are not mutually exclusive. My hope is that this awakens and/or affirms a sense of political (in the broadest sense of the word) advocacy for all teachers.”

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